High School STEM Education and Connecticut’s Engineering and Computer Science Fields

Adam Harris

CTC Research Fellow

Although the number of students graduating from Connecticut’s colleges and universities with Engineering degrees declined steadily from 1986 to 2002, the popularity of this field has rebounded over the past decade, with the number of graduates more than doubling between 2002 and 2009. While there may be several factors leading to the rising popularity of this discipline, one of the most significant is an increase in pre-engineering education in Connecticut’s middle schools and high schools. In 1999, Southington High School became the first in the state to institute courses through Project Lead the Way (PLTW), a non-profit organization that has been developing rigorous STEM curricula and training instructors since its inception in 1997. In the thirteen years since this program was introduced to Connecticut, an additional 41 high schools and 16 middle schools have begun offering PLTW course opportunities to their students.

Nationally, the exposure of pre-college students to engineering has had a significant impact on the career and educational futures of those who participate in PLTW. A nationwide study of PLTW alumni showed that students who took these courses in high school were five to ten times more likely to study engineering in college than their peers. In addition, a Milwaukee School of Engineering study suggests that PLTW students have a higher retention rate in their undergraduate fields of study (as much as 25% higher) than their peers who did not take PLTW courses in high school.

This influential program already seems to have had a significant effect on Connecticut students, as the number of CT schools offering PLTW’s engineering curriculum shows an increasing trend over the past decade that correlates strongly with the increasing trend of engineering degrees conferred on graduates from Connecticut’s colleges and universities. The scatter plot below shows data for the years 1999-2011 for the number of schools with PLTW engineering courses (x-axis) and the number of engineering degrees conferred (y-axis). The Line of Best Fit demonstrates a strong relationship between the two variables during this period, with a Correlation (R-squared) of 81.51%. While the strength of this positive relationship does not necessarily prove that PLTW causes students to pursue engineering degrees in college, it does suggest that there is a noteworthy relationship between the two variables.


STEM_chart

Although the number of engineering degrees conferred in the Nutmeg State has increased significantly since 2002, other STEM fields have not shown the same growth; according to a 2011 report by the Connecticut Department of Higher Education, the number of Bachelor’s degrees in Computer Science decreased by 40.2% from 2006 to 2009, leaving 1,200 annual openings for computer specialists in the state. Providing insight into the cause of this deficit, a December 2009 article by Washington Post reporter Michael Chandler raised concern about the lack of computer science education in US high schools, suggesting that while American teens are whizzes at using computers, they are unlikely to play a significant role in technological innovations over the coming decades. The incredible effect of PLTW on the engineering field suggests that a similar approach might solve the computer science crisis the State of Connecticut now faces. Early exposure to programming courses, in addition to the training of motivated and inspiring technology teachers, may hold the key to improving the state’s computer science prospects.

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