Why Students Study STEM

Math and science exposure has a bigger influence on whether high school students plan to major in a STEM field than does math achievement, new research indicates. 

October 1, 2013

Exposure to math and science has a bigger impact on students’ intent to major in a science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM) field than does math achievement, according to a study published in the October issue of the American Educational Research Journal.

While math achievement is a significant indicator of whether students enroll in STEM majors (and was once thought to be the best predictor of future STEM entrance), early exposure to science and math courses has a greater influence on high school students’ interest in studying STEM fields, according to a study of nationally representative high school students entering college, "Why Students Choose STEM Majors: Motivation, High School Learning, and Postsecondary Context of Support." However, the largest indicator of whether a student declared a major in a STEM field was their intent to do so. 

“Through their exposure to math and science they have room for developing their interests and experiencing the wonders and joys of math and science,” said the study's author, Xueli Wang, an assistant professor of educational leadership and policy analysis at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. “It’s speaking to the holistic experience rather than the one-shot test score.”

But the exposure effect has a smaller positive impact on underrepresented minority students than on white and Asian students.

Underrepresented minorities are also more likely to be influenced by early math achievement than are white or Asian students. Early math achievement influences students' belief that they can succeed in math, which, in turn, influences whether students choose to pursue STEM fields in college. 

These findings, Wang said, highlight the need to close racial disparities in math achievement at an early age. 

“We all need to be mindful of racial differences especially if we are thinking of diversifying our STEM pipeline,” said Wang, also a scholar at the Wisconsin Center for the Advancement of Postsecondary Education.

The study also found some gender differences that affected whether students intended to study a STEM field in college. Male students reported more belief in their own math skills than female students with comparable achievements. The research suggested that improving female students’ confidence in their math skills could lead to stronger interest in STEM fields.

Several other indicators were discussed in the study -- including initial postsecondary experiences such as interaction with faculty and academic advisers and receipt of financial aid -- that affected whether a student majored in a STEM field.

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