Monday, December 16, 2013

Creating Opportunities for All Students to Pursue STEM Careers

by Remy Dou

I had the recent pleasure of seeing one of my academic endeavors in print, an article called "Engaging All Students in the Pursuit of STEM Careers." The article earned publication in the School Science Review (SSR)*. The content of the article reduces, so to speak, the work Dr. Kenneth Gibbs and I contributed while collaborating with Nobel Laureate Carl Wieman at the White House's Office of Science and Technology Policy. We took on the mission of synthesizing some of the research on student engagement in STEM into recommendations for agencies and governments. These recommendations serve as guidelines that would help increase the impact of STEM education programs  in ways that maximize the number of students that pursue STEM careers.

Deciding to pursue a career in science, engineering, or related field requires more than being "good at" that particular subject. Plenty of capable students choose other careers for a variety of reasons, including lack of confidence in their abilities. When it comes to choosing a career, behavioral factors often play a more important role in the decision-making than content knowledge alone. Of these behavioral factors, self-efficacy, or a student's belief about personal ability to accomplish certain tasks, has been shown to have significant influence in the process of choosing a career.

Regardless of students' actual ability, their self-perception matters. Often, highly skilled students or students with high potential lack self-confidence in their skills that motivates them to pursue certain paths. This lack of confidence may result from poor learning experiences, lack of appropriate peer influence, minimal verbal encouragement, and even fear of proving negative stereotypes about cultural groups students associate with. Additionally, other factors such as interest, which is itself affected by learning experiences and self-efficacy, play a major role in the career decision-making process.

Research shows that many of these factors highly correlate with one another, influencing one another (see Figure 1). Programs that seek to motivate students to pursue careers in STEM would benefit from taking these into account.

Figure 1.
Fortunately, appropriately designed learning experiences can target multiple factors, and therefore more effectively motivate students. Some of our recommendations included the following:
  1. Enhance exposure to STEM at the early elementary school levels.
  2. Engage students with STEM activities that require them to collaboratively solve problems by thinking like scientists.
  3. Recruit ethnically and culturally diverse STEM speakers and volunteers to interact with students.
  4. Ensure that the learning environment promotes STEM careers for student of all backgrounds without singling out a particular group. 
STEM industries make significant contributions to the American economy, and STEM jobs provide more security and higher wages. Considering the changes occurring in U.S. demographics, leaders at all levels, from teachers to politicians, should consider how to best prepare all students to pursue STEM careers, including those that are underrepresented in certain fields, like women and minorities.

Looking back at my own path, I can definitely pinpoint components of my journey that directed my professional goals in certain directions. While turning everyone into a STEM professional might not be the right pursuit either, our children would benefit from programs designed to increase their interest in and affective capacity to attain those careers. Regardless of the careers students ultimately choose to pursue, the STEM skills and confidence they develop from effectively designed interventions will continually benefit them.

The rest of the article, other recommendations, and references can be accessed through the SSR:

*The SSR is a journal of the Association for Science Education--the UK's largest subject association