Study: Exposure influences STEM majors

For students considering science, technology, engineering or math majors, there’s a lot more that goes into the decision than what was previously known.

A recent study written by Xueli Wang, a professor of educational leadership and policy analysis at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, found that exposure to a wide variety of STEM subjects — not just good grades — factors into a student’s decision to major in the field. Another important factor is self-efficacy, or how much one believes in his or her own ability to do the work.

Previous studies found that students who have higher math scores in high school are more likely to major in a STEM field. STEM subjects have received emphasis from politicians and educators in recent years, including in North Carolina.

“When students are in high school, their interest in STEM goes beyond achievement in math — attitudes toward math and exposure to math and science courses are also critical,” Wang said. “Once students get to college, their decision to choose a STEM major continues to be influenced by motivational beliefs and future educational aspirations.”

Winston George, a UNC junior Biology major with Chemistry and Entrepreneurship minors, said there was more than one factor in making his decision.

“I majored in bio because I planned on doing the pre-med (or) pre-dental track,” George said. “I think it was more my interest in science, rather than just being exposed to it in class, although in middle school, when I was exposed to slightly more in-depth content than before — that is what peaked my initial interest.”

The study also highlights one area of concern for the STEM field — the underrepresentation of African-Americans, Latinos and women compared to Caucasians and Asians.

Wang said there is no simple answer as to why there is underrepresentation of certain groups in STEM fields.

“It is very possible that various groups learn and are exposed to math and science courses differently,” she said. “This is why it is so important that more research be conducted to better understand how math and science education can better serve underrepresented minority students.”

Catherine Scott, a professor in UNC’s School of Education, said while the gap exists, by creating interest and stimulating achievement among underrepresented groups, schools can help close the gap.

“When it comes to the pathway of getting students from middle school to taking more rigorous coursework, a lot of students may fall behind or have gaps in their knowledge,” Scott said.

“Online coursework, for example, can help reach out to rural students or students needing to catch up or accelerate in ways that were not previously available. This will strengthen the pipeline of potential STEM majors.”

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