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STEM Interest on Rise Among High Schoolers, Report Finds

High school students are increasingly interested in pursuing STEM majors and careers, a new report finds, with about 1 in 4 now stating such an inclination. But a longstanding gender gap is widening, the data show, with fewer females than males signaling STEM interest.

Overall, STEM interest has climbed by 21 percent among high schoolers when comparing the class of 2004 with the class of 2013, according to the report from My College Options and STEMconnector.

Mechanical engineering was by far the top major or career choice for current high school students interested in the STEM fields, selected by 20 percent of respondents. Second place goes to biology, at 12 percent.

Meanwhile, female interest in STEM began to decline starting with the class of 2010, the data show, while it is climbing for males. In all, 38 percent of males in the class of 2013 report a STEM interest, compared with just 15 percent of females.

Organizers are hosting a live and virtual townhall meeting today at 3 p.m. Eastern to discuss the report's findings, with guest speakers to include Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam and Iowa Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds. Although there is no charge for the townhall meeting, and a brief highlights summary of the report is available for free, the full report, which includes national and state-by-state data, costs $195.

Recovering from a 'Dramatic Dip'

The report comes amid strong and growing national interest in the need to encourage more young people to actively pursue advanced study and careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. In fact, President Obama himself has made a point of repeatedly using his bully pulpit to talk up STEM education, and has begun hosting an annual White House Science Fair to generate more awareness. In 2010, the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology issued a report, "Prepare and Inspire," which also highlights the need to get more young people to pursue the STEM fields, especially minorities and females.

On the gender gap, here's a few more data points. Surveys of current high school students for the graduating classes of 2014, 2015, and 2016 show the gap widening even further. For the class of 2016, 45 percent of males say they're interested in a STEM major or career, compared with 13 percent of females.

Leaving aside the troubling gender divide, the news about the overall gain in STEM interest among U.S. students may not be as encouraging as it sounds to those worried about ensuring a strong STEM workforce. That's because the national increase really only bring the United States back to where it was at an earlier point in time, said Ryan Munce, a vice president at My College Options, an organization operated by the nonprofit National Research Center for College and University Admissions that collected this data.

"The biggest part of that is the dramatic dip in the early 2000s, and what we've seen over the course of the last decade is it really coming back to historical averages," he told me.

The new report is not just focused on STEM interest. It also highlights national and state-by-state data on job prospects in the STEM fields. Experts tell me that the data on future STEM jobs have been available for some time, but that the survey information on student interest has not. In any case, the report cites a federal estimate that there will be at least 8.7 million U.S. STEM jobs in 2018, up from 7.4 million today.

The report probes differences in STEM interest not just by gender, but also by race and ethnicity. These differences, however, are less pronounced. Here's a snapshot of the share of students indicating a STEM interest:

• Asian: 32.8 percent
• American Indian: 29.6 percent
• White: 27.1 percent
• Hispanic: 25.1 percent
• African American: 22.5 percent

Differences by household income level were slight, less than 2 percent.

Geography appears to have little impact on STEM interest among current high schoolers, whether by region or state. At a regional level, it ranged from 25.1 percent in the West to 26.0 percent in the Midwest. The state with the lowest reported interest among high schoolers was Nevada, at 22.4 percent, and the highest Montana at 29.5 percent. Most hovered right around 25 percent. (The report says the national average for all current high school students is 25.5 percent. For the class of 2013, the figure is 25.2 percent.)

This finding surprised Robert S. Boege, the executive director of STEMconnector and ASTRA, the Alliance for Science & Technology Research in America.

"What struck me is how closely aligned most of the states are" in the level of STEM interest, he said.

Diving deeper into STEM preferences, as mentioned, mechanical engineering was squarely on top as the most popular discipline. Least popular? Energy technology at 0.1 percent.

Here's a top ten list:

• Mechanical engineering: 20.4 percent
• Biology: 11.9 percent
• General engineering: 11.0 percent
• Science: 10.6 percent
• Game Design and Developer: 9.4 percent
• Electrical engineering: 8.4 percent
• Computer/information sciences: 8.1 percent
• Mathematics/statistics: 8.0 percent
• Marine Biology: 7.6 percent
• Computer engineering: 5.9 percent

Girls Like Biology, Boys Like Engineering

The report also reveals some gender contrasts in areas of interest. For instance, biology was far more popular with girls, and mechanical engineering with boys.

Here's a quick sampling of particular STEM fields in which gender discrepancies were especially evident. Sadly, many of these are rather predictable.

• Biology
Girls (24.7 percent)
Boys (6.3 percent)

• Mechanical Engineering
Boys (27.5 percent)
Girls (4.8 percent)

• Game Design and Developer
Boys (12.4 percent)
Girls (2.8 percent)

• Marine Biology
Girls (14.6 percent)
Boys (4.7 percent)

Finally, here's an odd one. A lot more females (18.0 percent) than males (6.4 percent) selected "science" as an area of special interest.

There's plenty more to mine in this report, both at the national level and for given states. The results on STEM interest are drawn from annual survey data collected by My College Options. Each year, the organization collects data on high school students through a survey of some 5.5 million high school students, which covers 95 percent of American high schools.

Boege said the new report is a "first stab" at trying to map out the national and state landscape when it comes to student interest in STEM and the needs of states to build their STEM workforces to meet job demand and grow their economies.

"We try to link the information in a way that is comprehensible to the general public," he said. "There will be many, many questions raised by what we have put together, and hopefully it will stimulate debate."

UPDATE: (5:02 p.m.) One dimension of the report I neglected to mention was the large number of high school freshmen who eventually abandon their plans to pursue a STEM major or career. Nearly 28 percent—roughly 1 million freshmen—declare an interest in STEM each year, but more than half of them, 57 percent, lose that interest by the time they graduate, the report says. The authors suggest this is a phenomenon worth careful attention, as it's a lot easier "to maintain interest than to create new interest where it is not present."

At the same time, this data point does not tell the whole story. Fifth-three percent of high school seniors became interested in STEM after their freshman year, the report shows. In the end, it says, high school seniors are about 10 percent less likely than freshmen to declare an interest in a STEM field.

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