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Parents Are an 'Untapped Resource' to Push STEM, Study Says

Sometimes a little effort can go a long way. A new study suggests that a fairly simple intervention with parents can translate into their teenage children getting more STEM education.

The field experiment involved sending parents two glossy brochures and the link to a website, all highlighting the value of studying STEM subjects. The result? Students from those families, on average, took nearly one semester more of science and mathematics in the last two years of high school, compared with a control group of families not exposed to this intervention.

"Parents are an untapped resource for promoting STEM motivation, and the results of our study demonstrate that a modest intervention aimed at parents can produce significant changes in their children's academic choices," researchers write in an article published this month in the journal Psychological Science.

The research comes at a time of growing national concern about the need to prepare more students for careers in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields.

Not surprisingly, the researchers say that parents' education level was a strong predictor of their children's coursetaking patterns, as other research has found. Simply put, the children of more highly educated parents took more math and science courses.

But here's what's striking. The effect of the randomized intervention was nearly as strong as the effect of parents' education, the study concludes.

The study, "Helping Parents to Motivate Adolescents in Mathematics and Science: An Experimental Test of a Utility-Value Intervention," was co-authored by four researchers: Judith Harackiewicz, Janet Hyde, and Christopher Rozek of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Chris Hulleman of James Madison University.

The research was supported by grants from the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Education's Institute for Education Sciences.

Researchers first mailed a brochure to parents in October of their children's 10th grade year. It provided information about the importance of math and science in daily life and for pursuing careers, as well as guidance to help parents talk with their children about the connections between STEM education and their lives. The parents received a similar brochure in January of their children's 11th grade year, as well as a link to a website with more STEM resources. The website featured resources on STEM fields and careers, along with interviews with college students about the importance of math and science courses they took in high school.

The interventions led to a significant difference in the number of elective, advanced math and science courses taken, such as calculus, statistics, and physics, the study found.

Stepping back, the researchers suggest that the stakes are high for students based on decisions they make in high school.

"The pipeline leading students toward careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics [STEM] begins leaking in high school, when some students choose not to take advanced mathematics and science courses," the study says. "It is essential to mobilize all potential resources for motivating adolescents to take courses that will best prepare them for their future."

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