Jan 26, 2016

During one of my high school summers, my dad enrolled me in G.E.M.S.—Girls Excited about Math and Science. Truth be told, I was anything but excited. “Science is hard; Math is hard.” These are mantras that, like many, I had heard throughout my schooling experience and bought into. The idea that science and math are tough subjects, especially for certain groups—such as girls or underrepresented minority students—has been reinforced time and again. Despite my initial resistance, after a few short weeks in G.E.M.S., I began to enjoy the various hands-on and real-world experiences that were offered. That initial spark grew, as I am now working to finish my doctorate in applied developmental psychology. But I know that not all students have such experiences to help counter some of the negative messaging about math and science. That messaging has created a culture where efficacy in, enthusiasm for, and participation in STEM – science, technology, engineering, and math – desperately need a boost.

Increasing STEM participation is critical to mitigating a significant STEM workforce shortage projected to occur by 2018. The Department of Commerce projects that STEM job opportunities will have grown by 17 percent between 2008 and 2018, compared to about 10 percent for non-STEM jobs, and that there will be a lack of qualified people to fill them. STEM participation across our diverse citizenry is necessary for the continued ingenuity, innovation, and discovery that these fields cultivate. Growing the STEM workforce will take some doing, but the nation is up to the challenge.

To answer the call, President Obama launched a national effort in 2012 to produce 1 million new STEM college graduates over the next decade. The Department of Commerce projects that increasing the retention of STEM college majors from 40 percent to 50 percent alone would nearly meet this goal. However, students traditionally underrepresented in STEM fields – including women, black, Hispanic, and American Indian/Alaskan Native students, and persons with disabilities – enter and leave STEM majors at higher rates than their counterparts. So, what can be done to improve retention rates? Entry into STEM pathways begins before post-secondary experiences, and starts with 3 i’s – intellect, interest, and intent.

Intellect, or academic preparedness, is a must. Specifically, math preparedness is a key factor in successful completion of a STEM major. However, recent estimates indicate that only 26 percent of 12th-grade students are math-proficient. The Child Trends DataBank reports that, in addition to proficiency scores’ remaining steady for 12th-graders from 2009 to 2013, so, too, did racial/ethnic gaps. Students’ access to and enrollment in advanced courses, such as calculus, is one key to bolstering student performance in and advancement to STEM careers. Preparedness, however, is a necessary but insufficient condition for STEM participation.

Interest matters. Students’ motivation and interest relates to their STEM-related choices and behaviors. The good news is that interest in STEM is rising. American College Test (ACT) data from 2008 indicated that only about 31 percent of 12th-graders were interested in STEM. However, according to data from 2015, 49 percent of 12th-graders were interested in STEM. The difficulty is that not all interested students are also math proficient, and vice versa. The link between interest and proficiency tends to be disparate among underrepresented groups, though it is improving. In 2008, between 5 and 12 percent of minority students were math proficient and interested in STEM, which rose to 18 to 35 percent in 2015.

Intent to pursue STEM is equally, if not more, important than interest in STEM. ACT distinguishes between measured and expressed interest in STEM, where measured interest is interest in science and technology, and expressed interest is having plans to pursue a STEM major or occupation. Although having either a measured or expressed STEM interest relates to achievement, having both is much better. Among students who had both a measured and expressed interest in STEM, 58 percent and 54 percent reached ACT math and science benchmarks, respectively, compared to those with only an expressed (46 percent math, 40 percent science) or measured (40 percent math, 39 percent science) interest. While it’s unclear how one affects the other, it is clear that encouraging a blend of STEM intellect (or more accurately, academic preparedness), interest, and intent is likely to better equip students to pursue STEM. More research is needed to understand how these factors relate, and publicly available datasets like the High School Longitudinal Study of 2009 from the National Center of Education Statistics contain a wealth of data to further our understanding.

The key is what we’ve been hearing all along, about nearly everything – start early. Building on the naturally inquisitive nature of young children can help to foster an interest in STEM. This is also the time to work against stereotypes that some groups of students just aren’t good at math or science. I was psyched to learn that my six-year-old niece is already learning algebraic concepts in 1st grade – and she calls it algebra! She’ll be all the more ready in second grade and beyond. This is the type of impact that folks in schools, districts, and states across the country are striving toward. Provisions in the newly enacted Every Student Succeeds Act aim to provide STEM resources to K-12 schools to prepare and attract high quality teachers, expand coursework, increase access for underrepresented populations, and provide enriching learning experiences. And the STEM Education Act of 2015 seeks to award grants to foster out-of-school STEM learning opportunities to promote learning and engagement, likely for opportunities similar to G.E.M.S., which was a key step in my very own STEM pathway. Media is helping with the needed boost in STEM through programming such as Peep and the Big Wide World and SciGirls, which emphasize the importance of early investments and send a new message that STEM is for all.

Joy Thompson, senior research analyst