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Sparking STEM Interest Is Key to Earning Degree, Study Says

The most promising pathway to generating more college graduates with STEM degrees is not enrolling students in advanced math and science classes in high school or emphasizing higher achievement, a new study suggests, but simply doing more to spark their interest in the subjects.

"Focusing attention on increasing student interest in science and mathematics and demonstrating to students the utility of these subjects in their current and future roles may pay greater dividends in building the STEM workforce," concludes the analysis, just published in the journal Science Education.

Drawing on national longitudinal data, education researchers Adam V. Maltese from Indiana University, Bloomington, and Robert H. Tai from the University of Virginia evaluated the influence of student attitudes, experiences, and performance over the time span from adolescence through early adulthood. They created a model to shed light on how various school-based factors might influence students' decisions to pursue and complete a college degree in the STEM fields: science, technology, engineering, and math.

The researchers argue that the current policy focus on efforts to increase STEM majors "may be misguided" in what they see as the emphasis on advanced coursetaking and raising student achievement in the subjects.

At the same time, the authors caution that they're not dismissing the value of such efforts.

"We want [students] to be skilled at math and science, but we also need to think about what we can do in terms of teaching it in ways to get them more interested," Maltese said in a press release about the new study. "This [study] provides some numbers and some data to back up the importance of that."

The researchers suggest that a promising approach would be to frame the presentation of math and science material in classrooms in a manner that is more relevant to the daily lives of students.

"Make the science personal, local, and relevant," they suggest. In addition, they recommend "more discussion within classrooms about the types of jobs available in STEM and whenever possible have students interface with local representatives of organizations in the science, engineering, and medical fields to raise career awareness."

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