Why American Students Are Avoiding STEM Careers

Although the United States often ranks lower than other developed nations in math and science proficiency, recent study results offer some insight into how American students can be led to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering, and math.

Although the United States often ranks lower than other developed nations in math and science proficiency, recent study results offer some insight into how American students can be led to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM).

The study, led by Huy Le, PhD, of the University of Texas at San Antonio, set out to identify factors that could contribute to students’ interest in STEM during adolescence. To do so, the research team tracked data on a group of students from 8th grade up until about 6 to 9 years after they initially enrolled in college.

The results showed that most of the students who entered into STEM fields as adults showed interest in doing so during adolescence.

“People seek out the environment that fits their personal characteristics,” Dr. Le said. “If they work in an arena that suits them, they’ll be happy and successful. With these predictors, we can identify students with potential for obtaining a STEM degree nearly a decade before they pursue it.”

However, although plenty of American students showed interest and potential in STEM fields, many of them weren’t encouraged to further develop their science and math skills, and instead pursued careers that utilized other talents.

The researchers noted that this observation was particularly relevant to discussions of gender diversity in STEM fields, as girls with interest or proficiency in science and math were more likely to pursue other interests, even though they had the same rate of success in STEM fields as their male peers. Dr. Le said this seems to suggest that “the dearth of women in the field is probably due to societal factors.”

Acknowledging the growing need for scientists and engineers in the United States, he ultimately encouraged educators to cultivate their students’ interests in science and technology, as well as to educate them on the benefits of a career in STEM.

“This is a critical issue in our economy right now,” he said. “We have a crippling deficit of participants in the STEM field, and if we can encourage our students to pursue this path, we’ll be on our way to eradicating it.”

The study was published in the Journal of Vocational Behavior.