Students Have Interest in STEM Degrees, but Need Encouragement

A new report by ACT shows many high school graduates are interested in science, technology, engineering and math, but pursue other degrees once they enter college

By Greg Scott Neuman
Posted February 06, 2014 11:00 AM

Students are interested in STEM fields, but need more encouragement.
Students are interested in STEM fields, but need more encouragement.

In 2012, President Barack Obama’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology reported the nation would soon face a significant shortage of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) professionals.  It inspired congressional bills and grant initiatives aimed at expanding interest in these fields.

Now, a report by education nonprofit ACT has found that plenty of students are interested in STEM.  The problem is that they frequently end up pursuing degrees and careers in other areas.

“The good news is that student interest in STEM is high overall,” ACT President of Education and Career Solutions Jon Erickson said in a press release. “The bad news is that a sizable number of students may not be connecting the dots between their innate interests and a potential STEM-related career.”

The Condition of STEM 2013, ACT’s national and state report series, examines two types of interest:  expressed and measured.  Students provide expressed interest when they say they intend to enter a particular field.  Measured interest, on the other hand, is gauged by their responses to the ACT Interest Inventory, which measures preferences for different types of work.

Of the high school graduates tested by ACT in 2013, 48% had expressed and/or measured interest in STEM – including 16% who had both.  But 9% had measured interest only.  That means almost one in 10 had innate interest in STEM subjects, but no intention of pursuing them once they entered college.

“Nothing is more costly to the nation than untapped potential, and that’s why we must do more to ensure that all students understand the career opportunities that match their interests, particularly those that exist in important STEM fields,” said Erickson. “If we can identify students earlier and then keep them engaged, they may be more likely to choose a STEM career.”

In other research conducted by ACT, it’s been found that students are generally more successful when the degree they pursue aligns with their interests.  They are more likely to stick with their major and complete their degree on time.

“The findings in this new report are supported by those in our recent College Choice Report, which showed that a surprising number of students are planning to pursue majors or careers that don’t match their interests,” said Wayne Camara, ACT senior vice president of research. “If we encourage young students who are interested in STEM to consider related careers, I believe both they and U.S. employers will benefit.”

Perhaps the best encouragement to enter a STEM field students can get comes from the labor market.  The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that STEM occupations are growing fast, tend to offer high salaries and have a smaller gender wage gap than other professions.   Additionally, more than half of the top 50 jobs in U.S. News & World Report’s 100 Best Jobs of 2014 are STEM-related.

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