How STEM Career Plans Get Derailed

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) are an interest of mine. I have blogged about them several times, have presented about them at conferences, and have written a book about them (Quick STEM Careers Guide). Next month, JIST will publish my STEM Careers Inventory.

The United States needs a steady supply of STEM-prepared college grads to fill the many technological jobs that our economy has created and will continue to create. In fact, if we fail to meet this need, our economy is threatened.

So I was intrigued to come upon a paper (PDF) by two economists, Todd and Ralph Stinebrickner (brothers?), “Math or Science? Using Longitudinal Expectations Data to Examine the Process of Choosing a College Major.” The researchers used data from a longitudinal study at Berea College to investigate how students go through the process of choosing a college major. They focused on large groups of majors, especially the group that they call “math/science.”

The usual assumption about how students choose a major is that students have a self-concept and a concept of the careers that the major leads to. Students are likely to change their planned major if they feel that one of these has changed so that what previously seemed like a good match now appears to be a bad fit. For example, students’ self-concept may change if they discover that they are no longer interested in the major or if they find that they lack the ability to do well in it. Their concept of the career outcomes may change if they learn that an industry associated with the major is not as promising as they previously thought it was or if an internship experience in a related career reveals work tasks or worksite conditions different from what they previously expected. The researchers sought to discover which of these changes were mainly responsible for students’ abandoning their plans to major in math/science.

The survey instrument at Berea College elicited four attitudes that students held toward their planned major: their percent chance of sticking with the major, their expected GPA, their expected income (in dollars) at age 28, and their interest in the major (on a five-point Likert scale). The research report notes that one unique advantage of this survey instrument as a window on the students’ career decision making was its frequency: “Each student was surveyed approximately 12 times each year while in school, with the first survey taking place immediately before the beginning of the student’s freshman year.”

A change in the first of the survey’s scales (chance of persistence) would indicate a change of heart toward the major. An accompanying change in the second scale (expected GPA) would indicate a change in self-concept, whereas if there were a better correlation with expected earnings or with interest in the major, this would indicate a change in students’ perception of the career.

The researchers found that expectations of persistence in the major changed differently for students planning to major in math/science: Expectations tended to decline precipitously in the freshman year (even though students did not have to formally declare their major that year), whereas students planning other majors, if they scaled back their expectations, did so more gradually over several years. And the decline in expectations for the math/science major showed a stronger correlation to anticipated GPA than to anticipated earnings or current interest. In other words, students’ experiences in their freshman year caused them to revise downward their estimates of their math/science abilities, and that’s why they expected to drift away from a math/science major.

I saw examples of this behavior in my own freshman year at a school with a large proportion of math/science majors (The Johns Hopkins University). Several friends of mine abandoned plans for math/science careers after experiencing the rigorous chemistry and calculus classes that freshman math/science majors at JHU are required to take.

The researchers conclude that we need “policies at younger ages that lead students to enter college better prepared to study math or science.” I agree. It’s not enough to get students interested in STEM careers. We need to be sure that in high school (and probably starting earlier than that) young people learn the skills they will need to succeed in a STEM college major.


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