Skip to main content

Physicist S. James Gates, Jr. Offers Novel Strategies for Motivating Undergraduate STEM Students

Undergraduate physics students generally don’t delve into string theory until they take upper-level courses. And it’s rare, at best, to find them doing highly esoteric research in a field that explores the very essence of physical reality. But Jim Gates, one of the world’s premier string theory scholars, has been using undergraduate research assistants for over a decade, and their work has contributed to papers published in refereed journals.

For Gates, a member of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST), the undergraduates’ work offers an important lesson about science education in the United States: Undergraduate students frequently drop out of STEM courses because they are turned off by traditional lectures, but involving them in research with faculty members can help keep them on track for careers in science and engineering.

S. James Gates, Jr.

“We think that you can capture the thrill of discovery and inquiry in the first two years by allowing students to engage in real research,” Gates said at the recent AAAS Forum on Science and Technology Policy. “Not some cookbook recipe where you know what the answer is going to be, but real questions where you don’t know where the answers are and students get a chance to struggle along with faculty and get to be drawn in by the thrill of the chase. And that’s a really empowering and exciting thing.

“If you can do it in string theory,” he added, “I’m pretty sure you can probably do it in lots and lots of other places.”

Gates, the J. S. Toll Professor of Physics at the University of Maryland-College Park, spoke 26 April at the AAAS Forum, held at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center in Washington, D.C. More than 400 attendees from the fields of government, policy, academia and business participated in the 37th annual forum, organized by the AAAS Center of Science, Policy, and Society Programs.

Budgetary and economic issues dominated the two days of the forum’s programming. The country is currently transitioning away from an industrial base to its next stage, an advanced manufacturing base, Gates said, just as the U.S. shifted from an agrarian economy during the Industrial Revolution.

“We’re going to have to get back to making things,” he said. “And we’re going to have to do it in the face of global competition because if we can make the things, other people can too.”

American workers have shown “the ability to innovate on a scale that as far as we can tell, is incomparable over the course of the last century,” Gates said. Developing an innovation-based economy means that workers will need the ability to quickly train and retrain as the skills they need for their jobs change rapidly over time, making education a major driver of the future economy.

To meet the challenges of an innovation-based economy, the U.S. must improve the quality of education in STEM fields, Gates said. “Engage to Excel,” the February PCAST report on undergraduate STEM education, established the goal of graduating 1 million additional students with college degrees in STEM fields over the next decade. Those graduates will facilitate the transition in the U.S. to an innovation-based economy.

Fewer than 40% of students who start college intending to earn a STEM degree actually complete the degree requirements, Gates said, but increasing retention in undergraduate STEM education to 50% would generate three-quarters of the goal of 1 million STEM grads.

In addition to four-year colleges, community colleges play an important role in training the future STEM workforce. One-third of current employees in STEM started their education in community colleges and a large percentage of Hispanic students attend community colleges.

“We think that partnerships are going to be key to getting us to a better place. There have to be new partnerships between two-year and four-year colleges,” Gates said. There is also a need for partnerships between research universities and business community, “not just a few internships but again, trying to get young people oriented towards the things that will increase the country’s productivity.”

“The final part of the puzzle is about leadership,” Gates said, acknowledging that college deans are frequently more interested in faculty who publish frequently in prestigious journals than those who teach well.

“There’s a misalignment in the incentive system and that misalignment cannot be corrected by the faculty at the bottom of the system,” he said. “It’s going to have to be leadership—leadership all the way from the university provost, presidents, all the way down to deans—and to understand that there’s probably a better way to measure faculty effectiveness that’s in line with the needs of the country.”

Gates called upon the government to support curriculum redevelopment and possibly infrastructure rearrangement, even in a time of constrained budgets. “This is not just an educational problem,” he said. “This sits at the foundations of what our economy is going to look like in the future.”


Learn more about the AAAS Science and Technology Policy Forum

Learn more about the AAAS Education and Human Resources program

See more coverage of this year’s Forum.