Boosting STEM Interest in High School: A Project at Michigan State University Shows How Public High Schools Can Influence the Number of Students Headed toward STEM Careers

By Schneider, Barbara; Judy, Justina et al. | Phi Delta Kappan, September 2012 | Go to article overview

Boosting STEM Interest in High School: A Project at Michigan State University Shows How Public High Schools Can Influence the Number of Students Headed toward STEM Careers


Schneider, Barbara, Judy, Justina, Mazuca, Christina, Phi Delta Kappan


One of the most critical labor shortages facing the U.S. is the number of young adults entering careers in what's now commonly referred to as STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). Some have suggested that unless we engage in major efforts to increase the number of young people preparing for STEM careers, the U.S. will face a major talent deficit in fields typically associated with experimentation, innovation, and technological advancement.

Equally troubling is that the participation of blacks and Hispanics in STEM careers continues to lag that of whites and Asians. Projections suggest that the proportion of underrepresented minorities in science and engineering would need to triple to match their proportions in the U.S. population.

High school is one place to close that gap. At Michigan State University, we developed the College Ambition Program (CAP) to promote a STEM college-going Culture in high school. Since 2009, we've been working with a group of public Michigan high schoolsto help students realize their college ambitions and assess the effect of the CAP model. Four of those are located in urban areas and the other four are in rural areas.

Many students enter high school with interests in a number of topics and thoughts about prospective careers, but these often aren't well formed. This is particularly the case for students whose parents did not attend college or where students attend schools where college advising is less important than providing other social and behavioral supports. High school experiences determine students' academic preparation, educational expectations, and career knowledge--all of which are critical for postsecondary success. Without access to role models, awareness of college programs, and specific academic guidance, high school students--especially those in underrepresented groups--are unlikely to be adequately prepared for college and have the requisite information for choosing a career, in STEM or other fields.

Across the U.S., more than 90% of students entering 9th grade expect to attend college. However, only an estimated 70% to 70%of high school seniors enroll in a postsecondary institution. A recent National Center for Education Statistics report finds that Between 1972 and 2008, the immediate college enrollment rates of high school completers from low-income families trailed the rates of those from high-income families by at least 20% (Aud etal., 2010). This mismatch between college ambitions/aspirations and college enrollment raises two critical questions regarding low-income and minority students' access to and preparation for college: What strategies can make a difference in college-going rates of low-income and minority students? How can secondary institutions (particularly those in low-income communities) better support low-income and minority students on their path to enrolling and persisting in postsecondary institutions and encourage STEM career paths?

Channeling college ambitions

Research consistently shows that many high school students aspire to careers, such as forensic science, based on information from television shows and movies. Often, the challenge is to redirect that interest toward realistic careers. This can be particularly important in the sciences where tremendous changes are occurring--dramatically altering what scientists do and the types of education and extracurricular experiences, both in school and out of school that are needed to pursue such occupations. Many public high schools with high college-going rates have been capitalizing on student interests, devoting resources to helping students pursue postsecondary experiences aligned with their interests and skills. Public high schools with lower-than-average college matriculation rates often lack resources to help students form realistic strategies for attending college, much less choosing college majors that are consistent with their skills and offer them opportunities for secure employment. …

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