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Study: Engaging Students' Interest, Not Just Offering Advanced Classes, Best Promotes Interest in STEM Careers

June 23, 2011 — A new study published in the journal Science Education finds that sparking students' interest in science at an early age is more effective at steering them toward eventual careers in the "STEM" fields – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – than pushing high school students into more advanced courses.

Listen to the UVA Today Radio Show report on this story by Rebecca Arrington:

Using an analysis of 4,700 students participating in the National Education Longitudinal Study of 1988 conducted by the U.S. Department of Education, Robert H. Tai, associate professor of science education in the University of Virginia's Curry School of Education, and Adam V. Maltese, assistant professor of science education in the Indiana University School of Education and adjunct faculty in its Department of Geological Sciences, examined student transcripts and responses from surveys taken in the eighth, 10th and 12th grades about subject interest, course enrollment and achievement, and career plans.

Earlier analyses of these data indicated that students interested in a STEM career in eighth grade were significantly more likely to complete a STEM degree in college. However, that group made up only 20 percent of the STEM degree-earners from the National Education Longitudinal Study's 1988 sample. This study adds to the previous work by looking at the more complete educational histories of these students and investigating the other 80 percent of STEM graduates from the nationally representative sample.

The key finding is that various indicators of student interest and self-confidence in science and math in high school are strongly associated with students continuing STEM studies through college, above and beyond enrollment and achievement factors. There are also indications that teacher emphasis on further study in STEM has a positive association with persisting in STEM fields. Teacher lecturing and an emphasis on facts and rules were negatively associated. The academic level of high school science and math courses attempted was not significant in predicting persistence.

"It is important for us as educators and policymakers to keep in mind that advanced science coursework is significant only when the students in those courses are truly engaged in learning," Tai said.

Maltese, who earned his Ph.D. from Curry in 2007, said the finding provides a strong message for policymakers who are simply encouraging more students to enroll in more STEM-oriented classes.

"Achieving better is not necessarily going to lead to more students continuing in science and math," he said.

Maltese notes that many other studies that suggest pushing more students toward more math and science courses may not truly reflect the targeted population because the studies tend to include all students. "It's all high-schoolers, not just high school kids who are going on to college and completing a lot of coursework, if not getting a degree," he said. "In this study, we isolated it just to that group – figuring that if you're not going on to college, chances are much lower that you're going to pursue a job in math and science."

Considering just the college-bound students, the amount of science and math classes didn't correlate with the selection of a major in STEM fields.

"It seems like when we cut it to just that group of students, a lot of these effects of taking more science, doing better in your classes, wash away," Maltese said. "A lot of students who are going to college take all the science and math that they can in high school, and they do well in those classes." When limited to this group, the analysis indicates that neither race nor gender has a significant association with completing a STEM degree.

Tai elaborated on the findings by saying any correlation between STEM careers and high school coursework is outweighed by a student's established interests.

"That association is not stronger than having an interest in science-related career outcomes well before these students take these courses," Tai said. He added that the U.S. educational system isn't framed to take advantage of the role of students' interest and engagement.

"In terms of the current educational policy, we see a focus on achievement and we see a focus on students producing results on standardized tests," Tai said. "By that time, the standardized test scores in high school matter very little, but at the same time, the experiences they had in their science classes when they were children may matter a lot."

Maltese and Tai said the increasing evidence that earlier engagement is important to steering students toward STEM careers makes it clearer that subjects should be presented appealingly.

"We want them to be skilled at math and science, but we also need to think about what we can do in terms of teaching it in ways to get them more interested," Maltese said. "This provides some numbers and some data to back up the importance of that."

The research continues a productive line of study for both regarding why students do or don't select pathways toward STEM careers. Last year, they published the study, "Eyeballs in the Fridge: Sources of Early Interest in Science," in the International Journal of Science Education, which also indicated many scientists became interested in STEM careers at an early age.

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