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Study: Paths to STEM Fields Vary Widely

When and how do students become interested in pursuing science, technology, engineering, and math fields? Answering this question could offer ideas for increasing the number of STEM graduates, which some company executives say is crucial.

But a recent study found that the path students take to earning a STEM degree varies widely, and that interest in STEM can be triggered across the age spectrum.

The study, conducted by Indiana University School of Education researchers and published recently in the journal Science Education, asked 8,000 individuals about their educational histories and motivations. The researchers looked at a wide-ranging, non-representative sample of undergraduates, graduate students, and professionals in both STEM and non-STEM fields.

The majority of respondents in both STEM and non-STEM fields said they became interested in STEM before 6th grade, the report states. However, those who became interested in STEM starting in middle school or later were more likely to earn a STEM degree. 

Adam Maltese, an associate professor of science education at Indiana and a lead researcher on the study, said in an interview that that finding surprised him. "I expected those who said they were interested since day one—out of the womb—would be the most persistent in staying with STEM," he said. "But people who said they first got interested in STEM in college have two-and-a-half times greater odds of getting a STEM degree than maybe a student who got interested in 3rd grade."

For now, his interpretation of that finding "is that it's not so much that there's a benefit to getting interested in STEM later, but there's less time to lose interest," he added. 

Teachers, parents, and their own inclinations were the most common causes cited among the survey respondents for sparking an initial interest in STEM. Those who became interested in STEM in middle school or later were more likely to cite teachers as major influencers. However, no one type of initial influencer showed a significant relationship to persistence in a STEM major.

Those who persisted in STEM said the most critical factor for doing so was their own interest or passion in the field. And both STEM and non-STEM people said they picked their majors based on what interested them. 

"It seems that what is probably at play here is not that people leave STEM because they hate it or come to dislike it," said Maltese. "It seems more to us that people leave STEM because at some point they're exposed to something that interests them more." 

Maltese says the lack of specific triggers and timing for STEM interest is promising, in a way. "Museums, schools, afterschool programs, they all ignite someone," said Maltese. "I think that's a good thing. But the flipside is there's nothing to just throw a huge amount of money at from these findings." 

One major takeaway, he said, is "let's not give up on high school and college as places you might engage people who might be interested in STEM."

Maltese and his colleagues are working on parsing the data by gender and other factors for a future paper. 

Clarification: A quote from Maltese was updated to reflect appropriate terminology on odds.

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