What’s Preventing Students Interested In Science From Pursuing Careers In STEM?

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People in education and industry who would like more students to go into the group of fields known as STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) have mostly focused on how to get students interested in these disciplines. But a new report finds that there are significant number of students out there who are already interested in STEM—but don’t plan to pursue a STEM job.

The report was released by ACT, the organization that administers the college-admissions exam. It examines two types of interest among students: the “expressed” interest students voice when they say they plan to to pursue a particular major or occupation, and the “measured” interest students reveal when they fill out the ACT Interest Inventory, which measures preferences for different types of work.

Writing in T.H.E. Journal (Technological Horizons in Education), Christopher Piehler notes:

“A total of 48 percent of the ACT-tested 2013 graduates had expressed and/or measured interest in STEM, including 16 percent who had both. Twenty-three percent had only expressed interest, planning to pursue a STEM career even though their inventory results suggested that other fields may be better aligned to their interests. But nearly one out of every 10 graduates (9 percent) had only measured interest in STEM; they had no plans to pursue a STEM major or career despite their interest in doing so.”

This disjunction is surprising, because STEM jobs are some of the fastest-growing, best-paid, and most-prestigious around. I wonder if the disconnection is partly produced by students’ misconceptions about what scientists are like and what they do. These misconceptions are widespread, as I wrote in a previous post on the Brilliant Blog. Here’s an excerpt:

A white lab coat. An unsmiling expression. Thick glasses and unkempt hair. In one hand, a device replete with dials and gauges; in the other, a beaker bubbling over with a toxic-looking liquid. This image, which owes more to the movies than to the laboratory, is nevertheless what many students think of when they hear the word “scientist.”  It shows up with striking regularity, for example, in the drawings made by a class of seventh graders from Illinois who were asked their impressions of the scientific profession. The captions underneath their pictures tell the same story: “When I think of a scientist I think of brainy and very weird people,” wrote a boy named James. “I think of lots of bottles with chemicals . . . I think of little gadgets that are used for things that I do not know what they are.”

There’s a lot that students don’t know about scientists, an information gap that must be filled if they’re to imagine a future in science for themselves. Addressing the country’s shortfall of students in the STEM disciplines begins with persuading students that scientists are people, too.

The impact of encountering scientists as actual people, on the page or in person, is clearly visible in a second set of drawings made by the Illinois seventh-graders. The students’ teacher took them to visit Fermilab, a high-energy physics research facility near Chicago. There they talked to real live scientists—young and old, white and brown, and none holding gadgets or beakers. In the drawings they made following the field trip, the white lab coats did indeed come off. One “after” picture featured a young male scientist sporting a striped pullover and a goatee. “Anyone can be a scientist. I saw people walking around in sweatshirts and jeans,” wrote the young artist, a seventh-grader named Amanda. “Who knows? Maybe I can be a scientist.”

Brilliant readers, what do you think? Would increased contact with real-life scientists persuade more students with an interest in science to pursue careers in STEM?

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2 Responses to “What’s Preventing Students Interested In Science From Pursuing Careers In STEM?”

  1. Tim says:

    STEM jobs are some of the best paid!?

    No, they’re not. It’s fascinating that the claimed shortage of STEM job candidates never raises the issue of employers paying salaries that are not commensurate with the skill involved.

    So the most ambitious of the science and math majors create havoc as quants in the banking sector.

    • Chinchu.ko says:

      I agree with Tim. My daughter was an E.E. student. I clearly understood how many nights she stayed in the lab. It was not fun at all.

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