IOWA CITY — Undergraduate enrollment in science, technology, engineering and math fields at Iowa’s three state universities is up 37 percent in the past 10 years, and officials say interest from female students in many STEM-related majors is partly driving the growth.
The Governor’s STEM Advisory Council is a new initiative raising awareness in school districts around the state about science-related careers, but university officials say they’ve also had educational and support programs on their campuses, some decades old, focused on getting more students into those majors.
And growth of STEM enrollment in recent years also is likely linked to the economy, officials said, as students look for areas with promising job prospects.
“It’s a golden era in Iowa when it comes to STEM,” said Jeff Weld, a University of Northern Iowa professor who is executive director of the Governor’s STEM Advisory Council. “I’m just ecstatic with all the attention and resources being brought to this.”
Iowa State University and the University of Iowa have seen more consistent growth in STEM enrollment — nine straight years of increases to undergraduate STEM enrollment at the UI and six straight years at ISU — while UNI’s numbers have been more up and down.
But the overall trend at the three universities combined is upward, with undergraduate STEM enrollment up seven years straight, and female undergraduate STEM enrollment up eight years straight, with a nearly 42 percent increase in the past decade. The universities have awarded about 11 percent more degrees in STEM fields since 2002. Each university has a varied list of dozens of majors it considers as being under the STEM umbrella.
The overall progress is good, but officials still see areas that need work, said Karen Zunkel, director of the 26-year-old Women in Science and Engineering Program at ISU.
The College of Engineering is attracting good numbers of females to certain majors, she said, but overall the college is still only 15 percent female enrollment, which needs improvement. She also noted that women are retained at a higher rate than male students overall at ISU, but in STEM fields, women are retained at a slightly lower rate.
But “the trend is definitely going in the direction we like,” Zunkel said.
Chris Brus, director of the UI Women in Science and Engineering Program, said collapsed data often doesn’t show the more detailed picture, so officials track numbers by majors to see how they are doing in recruitment, retention and graduation rates in specific areas. Majors like biology, chemistry and pharmacy had strong undergrad female enrollment this fall, ranging from 33 percent to 60 percent females But other STEM areas, especially those where increasing female numbers is challenging, had lower rates, such as physics and astronomy, and computer science, which had 7 percent and 13 percent female enrollment, respectively. Looking at each major helps officials know where they need to focus efforts, Brus said.
Regarding physics and astronomy, that 7 percent figure looks at a student’s declared first major, department chairwoman Mary Hall Reno said. So there would be additional female students who have it as a second major, since many students receive multiple degrees. About 25 percent of the department’s bachelor’s degree graduates are women; nationally, about 20 percent of physics degrees go to women, she said.
For Tanzeh Khan, attending a program about STEM careers on the ISU campus when she was in middle school opened her eyes more to the possibilities. Khan, now 21 and a UI junior studying biomedical engineering and pre-med, said her involvement in a living-learning community for women in STEM when she first came to the university provided an immediate support system.
“I always knew that I had someone to turn to,” the Clear Lake native said.