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Academic Vice President Advises Congressional Subcommittee to Improve STEM Engagement, Retention

January 9, 2014

Cornwell with Student

Promoting STEM Initiatives: Phillip Cornwell, PhD, vice president for academic affairs, answers a question following his testimony at a hearing of the U.S. House of Representatives’ Science, Space, and Technology Committee’s Subcommittee on Research and Technology in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Nick McGee).

Vice President for Academic Affairs Phillip J. Cornwell, PhD, testified at a congressional hearing on Thursday, January 9, about how private-sector organizations can assist the engagement and retention of American youths toward science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) careers.

Cornwell joined world-renowned innovator Dean Kamen in testifying before the U.S. House of Representatives’ Science, Space and Technology Committee’s Subcommittee on Research and Technology, chaired by U.S. Eighth District Representative Larry Bucshon (R-Indiana). The hearing was broadcast on CSPAN.

A professor of mechanical engineering, Cornwell was selected as one of America’s top STEM college educators in 2012 for the Princeton Review’s Best 300 Professors book, and has earned the institute’s prestigious Dean’s Outstanding Teacher and Board of Trustees’ Outstanding Scholar awards. He has been a member of the Rose-Hulman faculty since 1989.

Rose-Hulman has been the nation’s No. 1-ranked undergraduate engineering institution for 15 consecutive years by U.S. News & World Report’s survey of college presidents and engineering deans. It has a first-year retention rate between 90 to 93 percent and a five-year graduation rate of approximately 80 percent—much higher than the national average of 50 percent (six-year graduation rate).

Improving that national engineering graduation rate by just 10 percent would produce around 100,000 new engineers in six years, according to Cornwell. He believes this would be possible by providing youth STEM development programs, rewarding professors with a passion and expertise in undergraduate STEM education, and providing meaningful STEM internships early in students’ college educational experiences.

Excellent high school mathematics and science instruction also is necessary to properly prepare students for the rigors of STEM education and careers, says Cornwell.

Finally, Cornwell’s congressional testimony urged the federal government to further encourage students preparing for STEM careers by differentiating student loan rates based on a college’s graduation rate and student’s course of major.

“A STEM-educated workforce is critical to preserving the American capacity for innovation and securing U.S. economic strength and competitiveness in the 21st century global marketplace,” says Bucshon, a physician and chairman of the subcommittee who invited Cornwell to provide his expert testimony. The congressman adds: “It is critical that we engage students at an early age and retain them in STEM related careers. Rose-Hulman is a national leader in this effort and proof that private industry development and involvement are vital to the science, technology, engineering and mathematics advancements left to be discovered. I thank Phil Cornwell for joining us for such an important discussion.”

FIRST Robotics, founded by Kamen, Project Lead the Way (PLTW) and similar national initiatives are encouraging middle- and high-school students toward STEM fields. Rose-Hulman is hosting FIRST Robotics’ Crossroads Regional for the second straight year (March 6-8) and recently became a PLTW affiliate partner.

Also, the institute is encouraging STEM initiatives through its Homework Hotline, a toll-free telephone and online math and science tutoring service; PRISM web portal, providing digital learning tools to teachers and fostering professional development for science teachers; and Operation Catapult program, a summer career exploration opportunity for high-achieving high school students.

Rose-Hulman Ventures, located on the institute’s South Campus, provides real-world, hands-on work experiences for students, as early as the freshman year, to work with professional project managers to develop innovative new products and services in corporate clients.

As part of his testimony, Cornwell told committee members a personal story about a Rose-Hulman student who was contemplating quitting college after being disappointed by a course assignment grade.

“With tears in her eyes, she said she didn’t know if she wanted to be an engineer, and she didn’t enjoy the material we were studying,” states Cornwell in his written prepared remarks for the congressional hearing. “I encouraged her to persevere, and I know her friends, who were also engineering students, encouraged her to persevere, and she did.”

That student earned two bachelor’s degrees at Rose-Hulman last spring and is now studying for a master’s degree as an international scholar in England.

Kamen, whose inventions include the world's first wearable infusion pump and the Segway, received an honorary degree in engineering from Rose-Hulman in 2012. He urged members of the Class of 2012 to “see education as a privilege, carry it as a responsibility."