Why They Chose STEM

Survey finds that male and female college students pursue science and technology degrees for different reasons -- and they agree that K-12 preparation should be improved.
September 7, 2011

Most college students studying for degrees in science, technology, engineering or math make the decision to do so in high school or before -- but only 20 percent say they feel that their education before college prepared them “extremely well” for those fields, according to a survey released today by Microsoft and polling company Harris Interactive.

The survey, which asked college students pursing STEM degrees and the parents of K-12 students about attitudes toward STEM education, also found that male and female students enter the fields for different reasons: females are more likely to want to make a difference, while males are more likely to say they’ve always enjoyed games, toys or clubs focused on the hard sciences.

The survey, of 500 undergraduate students at institutions across the country working toward STEM degrees, enters a crowded field of data on why students choose to pursue -- or not to pursue -- STEM subjects, which have been called the key to continued American economic success. Researchers have previously studied whether romance makes female students less likely to pursue STEM, the role of instructors’ race and gender in whether students continue with their degrees and the graduation rates for students in STEM fields, to name just a few topics.

The new study largely reinforces what was already known: that good teaching and preparation are key to attracting and keeping students’ interest, said Jane Broom, director of community affairs at Microsoft. “We as a country have to find the political will and make the hard decisions to actually implement what research is telling us,” she said.

Despite the emphasis in recent years on the nation’s need for more STEM graduates, only 25 percent of students said that was a reason they’re pursuing the field. Far more mentioned high salaries (68 percent, with this motivation particularly significant for pre-med and male students), the intellectual stimulation (68 percent, including many engineering, science and female students) and the potential for future jobs.

The study also found:

  • Just over half (55 percent) of college students said they were “extremely” or “very” well-prepared for college, with female students more likely to say they were well-prepared than male students.
  • The majority of students (57 percent) decided to study STEM subjects in high school, and students who felt they were “somewhat” or “not at all” prepared for college science courses were more likely to have decided in college to pursue a STEM degree.
  • Sixty-six percent of students, and 76 percent of parents of K-12 students, agreed that the U.S. is doing “a poor job” of teaching STEM subjects compared to other countries.
  • Despite the dissatisfaction with K-12 education, only 31 percent of college students said a good science education before college was “absolutely essential” or “extremely important” to college success. “Having a passion” and “studying hard” were the two factors most frequently cited as essential.

Those findings could help parents, schools and colleges tailor their appeals to students to pursue STEM degrees, Broom said. “The adults in the system and the parents in the system ought to push and make it clear for kids that these are great opportunities,” she said. “They’re great jobs, and there’s great earning potential in these jobs.”


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