STEM Instruction, Relevance, and Students’ Future Career Paths

STEM Instruction and the Importance of Relevance

It’s not interesting. It’s not relevant. Too often teachers hear these phrases from students in science and mathematics classes. In their article, “The impact of college- and university-run high school summer programs on students’ end of high school STEM career aspirations,” Joseph A. Kitchen et al. argue that in order to inspire students to not only find interest in STEM content, but to ultimately choose STEM career paths, it is essential for STEM classes and programs to keep content relevant. The authors show that instructors can significantly and positively alter students’ perceptions of STEM subjects by engaging students with real-world applications and actual professionals in STEM fields (13).

The authors note that it is during high school when many students start seriously considering their future career paths. Given that high school students’ aspirations are still malleable, it is also a prime time for STEM instructors to promote not just present understanding of STEM subjects, but students’ future trajectory for STEM career choices (12).

“The United States education system is not producing enough graduates who aspire to STEM careers to maintain competitive edge internationally, sparking concern among industry professionals, policymakers, and educators alike” (12).

For their study, Kitchen et al. investigated the effect of college- and university-run high school summer STEM programs on students’ STEM career aspirations. The authors gathered data from 15,847 college freshmen across 23 four-year and 4 two-year institutions. These students completed the NSF-funded “Outreach Programs and Science Career Intentions” (OPSCI) survey, which asked students about their career plans, middle school and high school STEM classes and experiences, STEM interests, and family characteristics (7). The OPSCI survey specifically asked students to report whether they “attended a college- or university-run STEM summer program during high school” and whether that program “showed them real-life relevance of STEM” (7-8). Students were also asked to state their career plans at the end of high school. The authors note that in the study, controls included gender, race/ethnicity, parents’ education, total number of mathematics classes taken during high school, and STEM tutoring (8).

The Findings

    • 845 students (5.3%) reported attending a college- or university-run STEM summer program during high school (10)
      •  49.1% male, 50.9% women
    • White students accounted for 40% of STEM summer school participants
    • “[S]tudents of color were more heavily represented among high school summer program participants” (10).
    • Participants in the summer programs were more likely to have had STEM tutoring
    • STEM summer program participants had higher SAT math scores than non-participants
  • Roughly 1/2 of STEM summer program attendees thought that their programs showed real-life relevance of STEM

“[S]tudents who participated in a high school summer program that showed them the real-life relevance of STEM had odds [of indicating STEM career aspirations] that were 1.8 times those of students who did not participate in a program” (11).

  • Students who attended a STEM summer program that “did not show them the real-life relevance of STEM was statistically no different from students who did not participate in a program at all” (11)

Students who attended programs that showed real-world relevance were 1.6 times more likely to report STEM career aspirations than students who attended summer programs that did not show real-life relevance (11).

    • College- or university-run summer STEM programs are effective at promoting STEM career choices
  • More traditional textbooks and lecture-based STEM instruction may be associated with a lack of real-world relevance (13)

Paper Title: The impact of college- and university-run high school summer programs on students’ end of high school STEM career aspirations

Authors: Joseph A. Kitchen and Gerhard Sonnert (Harvard University) and Philip M. Sadler (Science Education Department, Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics)

Full Paper:

Published: Science Education, 2018, Pages 1-19

Photograph: Thanks to Randall Bruder on Unsplash

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