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Voices of the Global Community


Margaret (Peg) Steele, Engineering and Science Advising Commission Chair

PegSteele.jpgOver the past year, full time and faculty advisors have had an opportunity to meet in informal settings at the state, regional and national conferences to discuss areas of concern in advising Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) students. During these discussions, advisors have identified many challenges that confront them when advising this designated population. Some of these challenges will be addressed in the following discussion.

One important advising challenge is helping students make the transition from high school to college. Various theorists such as Sanford, Chickering and Reisser, Perry, Schlossberg, and others have addressed the normal psychosocial and cognitive development that students experience while making the transition. Although little research is available, anecdotal accounts have indicated that students who major in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics seem to have additional transitional concerns beyond the normal developmental tasks.

One area of concern for STEM students is the gap between their basic math and science preparation and the reality of the rigors of college level work. In addition to inadequate preparation, some students simply do not have the motivation or study and time management skills to keep pace with the demands of college level coursework. When full-time or faculty advisors are aware of this disconnect, they may find the following advising approaches helpful:

  • Make referrals when appropriate to study skills classes and seminars and time management workshops
  • Encourage students to enroll in a review or remedial class when these important skills need to be strengthened.
  • Encourage and help establish study groups for specific courses.
  • Refer students when indicated to tutoring services and learning centers.

High school counselors, principals and parents must be made aware of this disparity in preparation. Advisors can help by referring them to special programs such as:

  • Project Lead the Way - www.pltw.org/index.cfm
  • National and state supported STEM programs -http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/STEM_fields
  • Recruitment overview sessions and orientation sessions
  • Summer workshops for high school potential STEM majors -http://accad.osu.edu/womenandtech/programlinks.html and www.osc.edu/press/releases/2008/summer_academy.shtml

Advisors must also be sensitive to students who might be questioning their choice of major. Previous research has estimated that between 50 and 75 percent of students change their major at least once before graduation (Gordon, 2005). Steele and McDonald (2000) identify various reasons for changing majors: “Lack of information, outside influences, developmental issues, and academic difficulties are the main categories that provide an explanation for this frequently occurring phenomenon” (p.149). Some advisors may need to learn techniques for helping these students explore and identify new academic directions. Special advisor development programs that focus on these students and their needs can help advisors become more proficient in this area.

It is sometimes helpful to inform students about various other STEM majors. Faculty and professional advisors can learn about related options from other colleagues and professionals in the STEM fields. Professional organizations also can provide important information about their particular career fields. Some examples are:

  • Geological Society of America - www.geosociety.org/
  • Association for Computer Machinery - www.acm.org /
  • National Academy of Engineering - www.nae.edu/nae/naehome.nsf
  • Mathematical Association of America - www.maa.org/
  • NACADA Engineering & Science Commission Web site -www.nacada.ksu.edu/Commissions/C21/resources.htm

Integrating academic advising and career advising is increasingly considered an essential part of advising. Not all advisors are comfortable with this aspect of advising, but as Gordon (2005) emphasizes, “Career concerns, whether simple or complex, should never be ignored” (p.49). According to Bates (2007), “Academic advisers with sufficient knowledge of career advising know when to refer students to a career counselor and understand what the counselor will be able to do for the student” (p. 1). It is the informed advisor who knows the extent of his or her ability for helping students with career-related decisions and when appropriate, refers them to professional career counselors.

Advisors and students would do well to realize that STEM disciplines are constantly redefining themselves since the work world continues to change due to technology, globalization, reengineering, and organizational structures. The following Web sites can provide information about STEM majors and possible occupational connections:

  • U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics - www.bls.gov/ 
    Occupational Outlook Handbook - www.bls.gov/OCO/

The Engineering and Science Commission continues to discuss many topics and issues relating to the advisement of STEM students. Since research on these students is so sparse, the Commission urges advisors to initiate research projects and report successful advising practices through the many communication opportunities that NACADA provides. Collaboration with advisors in related professional organizations can be a key factor in contributing to research for advising STEM students. A current example of collaboration is in process with the American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE) with advisors in each organization working to support each others’ research efforts in advising STEM students.

Margaret (Peg) Steele
Coordinator, Academic Advisement
Department of Computer Science & Engineering
The Ohio State University

Read More About It! References and Additional Reading

Bates, S. (2007). Career advising: What academic advisers need to know. The Mentor; 9 (3). Retrieved May 21, 2008 from www.psu.edu/dus/mentor.

Gordon, V.N. (2005). Career advising - An academic advisor’s guide. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.

Steele, G.E., & McDonald, M. (2000). Advising students in transition. In V.N. Gordon, & W. Habley (Eds.), Academic advising: A comprehensive handbook. (p149).San Francisco: Jossey Bass.

Web sites

AAC&U News

American Chemical Society

Canadian Association of Physics Careers and Jobs

National Science Foundation

American Society for Engineering Education

Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology

Journal of Research in Science Teaching

Cite this article using APA style as: Steele, M. (2008, September). The challenges of advising science, technology, engineering and mathematics students. Academic Advising Today, 31(3). Retrieved from [insert url here]


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