Middle School Students' Attitudes toward Pursuing Careers in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math

Article excerpt

Abstract

The purpose of this study was to describe middle school students' attitudinal changes towards careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) after year-long classroom interaction with a National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Fellow. The study utilized a mixed methods design of content analysis and constant comparative analysis for matched pre/post student responses (N = 1066) to the open-ended question: Do you think you could become a scientist (or technologist, engineer, or mathematician) like your [NSF] Fellow? Why? Initial content analysis placed student responses into one of seven response categories: remained negative; remained positive; remained uncertain; positive to negative; positive to uncertain; negative/uncertain to positive; and negative to uncertain. Five major themes emerged from constant comparative analysis of response categories explaining why students envisioned themselves becoming STEM professionals: subject area; interests and goal; self-efficacy; work ethic and learning ability; and NSF Fellow. These five themes were consistent across all response categories. The major theme throughout student responses to becoming STEM professionals was students' self-efficacy for a particular subject. From interaction with the NSF Fellow, the students developed a positive belief in their abilities and indicated increased willingness to persevere and work toward educational goals in that subject.

Introduction

Students' classroom experiences are important factors for continued study in specific subjects. Research has shown that subject matter and poor teaching negatively affect the persistence of students in science and engineering (Colbeck et al., 2000). As students progress through school, their interests and attitudes toward science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) subjects become more negative, especially during the middle school years (Morell and Ledermann, 1998). STEM subjects play an integral role in the agricultural sciences classroom. Negative attitudes may adversely affect students' interests in the agricultural sciences.

Current job market trends indicate heavy future demand for STEM trained professionals as many STEM professionals are nearing retirement, and demand in STEM fields continues to steadily increase (National Science and Technology Council, 2000). The steady decline in interest and increased negativity toward STEM subjects by students results in decreasing numbers of young people entering post secondary training and professional careers in STEM areas (National Science and Technology Council). Decreasing enrollment in agronomy and crop science programs has caused much concern in the agricultural science community (McCallister et al., 2005), and the steadily decreasing number of new STEM professionals entering the job market creates much concern about the future economic stability and national security of the United States (US). The US will either have to outsource jobs or import STEM professionals from other countries to fill these positions (National Science and Technology Council). In order to prevent a possible outsourcing threat, a need to understand why students change their attitudes toward STEM careers should be studied. If the underlying causes for negative attitudes toward STEM subjects can be understood, then effective intervention strategies could be designed and implemented to reverse current trends.

Theoretical Framework

Bandura (1986) linked students' motivation and achievement for a subject to their personal beliefs of how "good" they were in a particular subject. Bandura termed this personal belief as "selfefficacy." Pajares and Miller (1994) defined selfefficacy as "a context-specific assessment of competence to perform a specific task, a judgment of one's capabilities to execute specific behaviors in specific situations" (p. 194). Pajares and Miller stated that self-efficacy is a strong indicator of students' selfconcept. …