Editor's Desk

By Michael Hughes

Schooling students with Six Sigma

The headlines worrying about STEM education – both in the U.S. and abroad – are ubiquitous.

"STEM education crucial for global growth." "How early can we introduce STEM education?" "How to motivate U.S. students to pursue STEM."

Many sources say the world lacks qualified graduates in science, technology, engineering and math, with dire predictions for the future. And even when students start off pursuing STEM degrees, many of them drop out. Since industrial and systems engineers are adept at leveraging resources, why not figure out a way to keep these young people on the path toward a STEM degree?

That was the target of a Six Sigma team at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, where officials noticed a slight increase in the rate of STEM students leaving programs after their first year.

Practitioners and academics have worked for years, in some cases successfully, to adapt Six Sigma from its original manufacturing context to service industries. "Adapting Six Sigma for Academia" explains just how they did that.

Timothy Chow and Craig Downing detail how the venerable process improvement tool, part of a wave of solutions that jump-started manufacturing in the 1980s, could apply to the university community.

As ISE magazine readers have learned throughout the years, DMAIC (define, measure, apply, improve and control) is a powerful framework for figuring out and fixing problems.

The Rose-Hulman team defined customers, quality and metrics in a way that made sense to its mission. Surveys of former first-year students, along with faculty and staff who had contact with those students, helped fill in data gaps, define groups of students at risk for dropping out and identify potential interventions.

The increase in the defect, defined as the number of first-year college students who left and did not return, was halted. Although the improvement was small, reversing the trend bodes well for the future.

Faced with funding decreases, higher education has to find innovative ways to do more with less. Six Sigma, with its structured framework for approaching process improvement, disseminating information and getting results, can help.

Michael Hughes is managing editor of IISE. Reach him at mhughes@iise.org or (770) 349-1110.