Pupils’ exposure to real-life science applications could sway their career choice

Study after study, the worrying disengagement of young people in school from Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) subjects appears more and more obvious. And as outlined in the findings of one of these studies, the The Rose project, it is coupled with a decreasing interest in STEM careers. Previous studies performed in the UK show that the decline is particularly noticeable in secondary school. And it is exacerbated by the parallel development of stark gender differences. The question today, is how to ensure that an optimum number of students choose to become the scientists, technologists, engineers and mathematicians of the future?

A recent study analyses the views of secondary school pupils from 21 countries on their engagement with STEM subjects in and outside school, and includes their career choices. All countries represented are involved in the inGenious project, an EU-funded platform aiming to promote school-industry collaboration on STEM education.

Drawing on the existing research that investigates what factors intervene to shape young people career choices, this study focuses on pupils’ perception of STEM education and employment. It also examines the potential relationship between pupils’ views on and experiences of STEM and their inclinations towards STEM-related careers. Finally, it looked into a gender and regional differences in these pupils’ views and experiences.

Preliminary results were presented at the latest European Science Education Research Association (ESERA) conference, in September 2013. They were based on answers from 7,600 secondary school pupils, across Europe, split equally between boys and girls, who completed the questionnaire.

Survey results show that a large majority of pupils, 71%, claim a general interest in STEM topics, and 76% say they rather enjoy their STEM lessons. However, less than three quarters of these pupils carry this interest outside classroom and engage in STEM related activity, like reading a book, watching a documentary or going to a science museum.

Meanwhile, an absolute majority of the surveyed pupils, over 80%, understand the societal value of science and technology and believe that there is a great need in STEM specialists in the future. Yet, this belief is not necessarily translated into their personal commitments to the corresponding professions. This is particularly true for girls, only 44% of whom would consider a STEM related job for themselves.

According to these findings, just making science lessons interesting or informing pupils about the social significance of STEM is not enough to sway young people towards related careers.

However, the research also showed that learning of the STEM subjects in the context of real-world applications and jobs can be crucial in reigniting personal interest in such careers. Indeed, the study reveals that pupils regularly exposed to careers information and activities in school, are more likely to be interested in pursuing a related career.

Comparing two cohorts of pupils, including those that say they regularly learn about STEM jobs in school and those that say they do not, the study showed that adding the element of career learning to school STEM education could lead to a 20% increase in the number pupils positively considering a career in STEM. This was even more significant for girls: the number of girls who are positive about such jobs is 22% higher in the cohort of pupils who are regularly exposed to STEM career education than in the second group who could not recall learning about STEM careers in classroom.

There are, obviously, many factors affecting career choice that are beyond the influence of the classroom. For example, personality, cultural and socio-economic factors influence whether or not a child will eventually enter a STEM profession. As educators, however, we can and should influence what happens in our places of learning, career-wise.

The research of the inGenious project is still ongoing. The latest results, to be published in the autumn of 2014, point out to the importance of the quality of STEM teaching as crucial factor affecting students’ views, particularly for girls.

Michela Saputi, European Schoolnet

Irina Kudenko, My Science UK and inGenious team

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