Addressing the Theory and Application Debate in STEM Education

by Erica Harwell and Julia Panke Makela / Dec 18, 2012

OCCRL’s Applied Baccalaureate research team has spent much of fall 2012 visiting science and engineering programs to learn how baccalaureate degree pathways are developed that provide opportunities for graduates of applied associate degree programs to transfer all (or nearly all) of their credits to bachelor’s degree programs. Along the way, we’ve been intrigued to hear about how different higher education institutions address the debate between theoretical and applied education approaches in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields.

One of the analogies that stands out most clearly from our conversations in the field is that of a swinging pendulum, with theory on one side, application on the other, and a pendulum representing the focus of the curriculum. For each degree program, the pendulum hangs at a different angle, seeking a balance between theory and application that is optimal for the program’s goals and objectives, as well as the stakeholders that it serves (e.g., students, employers, faculty, administrators, communities).

Understanding this balance in the context of a single degree program and higher education institution can be a challenge. Placing that institution within the larger context of relationships with employers, other colleges and universities, government and policy makers, and other stakeholders adds layers to the complexity. It leads to a fascinating discussion regarding: (a) what should be the goals of a high quality, STEM education for college students, and (b) what educational formats are effective for attaining those desired outcomes?

Swinging Toward Applied

One program administrator of an Associate of Applied Science (AAS) degree program stressed that community colleges differentiated themselves from four-year baccalaureate degree programs through their focus on direct application of technical skills. He stated: “we focus on industry standards, the technical capabilities that [students] need in the job that they are going for.” The students gain concrete, technical expertise through their coursework and – although they may need some time to get acclimated to a new environment or new piece of equipment – they are essentially ready to go on the first day of their job. This teaching approach is viewed as providing successful learning opportunities for students who connect to material by actively applying tasks.

While the theme of valuing applied education at the technician level appears repeatedly in our data, as we move to the baccalaureate degree level the discussion becomes more complicated. On the one hand, students who choose to pursue a bachelor’s degree after receiving an applied associate degree are often at a disadvantage. Four-year institutions can struggle to fit applied technical courses within their program requirements, and the low number of general education courses required in AAS degree programs leave students with a number of requirements to fill. As one four-year institution representative reflected: “it’s not fair to [the students], because then when they come to us, they have to take another three and a half years to earn their degree.”

On the other hand, employers have expressed concerns when upper level bachelor’s degree coursework does not add sufficient depth via the instruction of theory and context. For example, one manufacturing employer suggested that when students are too specialized in a single applied field:

They don’t have that broader perspective that you get in an electronics program or through a mechanical program that gives you views beyond what you’re going to work on day in and day out. And that broader perspective helps them think more logically and reason through problems as opposed to, “Oh, I learned this in school. I just go apply this.” … There are subtle things that can happen. If you can’t reason through a problem based on your fundamental science knowledge, then you’re going to be in trouble. Right? You can try the same things over and over, but if it didn’t work the first time, it’s not going to work the second time either.

Swinging Toward Theoretical

During our travels, we also heard employers discuss the need for students to be able to apply the knowledge they have gained to their workplace. One employer expressed a need for curriculum to be contextualized, and that such practical application has been missing in the past:

But what I would like to see, and this again goes back to the market sector-driven approach for the AAS, is the contextualization of the subject matter so that it’s not left to the individual to show up on the doorstep of an employer and say, “Okay, I learned this in school, but I don’t know how to apply it here.”

However, we have also heard expressions of concerns about a trend toward theoretical education (to the detriment of application) in STEM bachelor’s degree programs. A department chair of a traditional, highly-ranked Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering program expressed that:

We’re in a crisis mode.

We have engineering programs around the country with faculty now that have been trained in sort of this classical research university mentality, where people in graduate school are taught to be faculty; they’re not taught to be engineers. And I have friends who have won the most prestigious awards in machine design, who honestly cannot change a tire… They’re an expert in some tiny narrow area. They’re deep as can be, but they’re just narrow. And those can’t be the people that educate our engineering students. That’s just never going to work. …

There just aren’t the capable engineers coming out of schools these days. There are a lot of engineers graduating, but most of them, they’re years away from really being able to do engineering work.

This department chair stressed the importance of restructuring primarily theory-based degree programs by reducing class sizes and providing students with opportunities to get “engaged from day one in actually designing and building and working with mechanical systems, taking things apart” – essentially, participating in applied learning experiences. He suggests that doing so offers the opportunity to “teach more theory than other schools because we allow students to understand the theory that they learn through application, becoming really passionate about it.”

However, changes such as these would also require shifts in institutional culture which reward the current focus on theory:

The industry wants [applied learning]. But the academic side of the house drives us to the publish or perish. ‘How many journals do you have? How many conference publications do you have?’ Nobody in engineering, nobody really cares how many machines you’ve built.

Welcoming Your Thoughts

This blog offers just a quick glimpse at some of the reflections that we are hearing from those whose paths we cross in our applied baccalaureate site visit journeys. Questions regarding the continuum of applied to theoretical learning continue to intrigue us, and will likely be a theme that we return to throughout this project. We welcome your comments and insights on this topic, and hope you will continue the exploration with us.