Good news: STEM can be contagious

There is a new report that examines how college students who thought their high school classmates were interested in science classes were more likely to intend to pursue STEM careers.

From the press release:

College students who thought their high school classmates were interested in science classes were more likely to intend to pursue STEM careers, a new study reports. The results of a cross-country survey suggest that motivating high school classroom environments may be “contagious” in positively influencing students’ STEM interests. Given the national push to increase the STEM talent pool in recent years – as a result of students opting out in favor of other preferences and under-representation in related professional fields – it is critical to understand the key features of educational environments that facilitate recruitment and retention. To better identify those attributes, Zahra Hazari and colleagues collected data from students in mandatory introductory English courses at 50 randomly-selected colleges and universities across the United States. They asked participants to report their likelihood of pursuing a STEM career, as well as how interested their peers were in their last high school biology, chemistry, and physics courses. The researchers also accounted for influences such as teaching quality, academic achievement, and family support for science and math. The survey showed that only 40% of students in high school classrooms with perceived low levels of interest showed STEM career intentions in college, compared to 65% of students in classrooms with perceived high levels of interest. What’s more, peer interest was linked to either improved or maintained grades in high school biology, chemistry and physics. The authors say that future research should further investigate the mechanisms by which interest is transmitted among peers, and how students engage in active learning.

Abstract of the study:

We report on a study of the effect of peers’ interest in high school biology, chemistry, and physics classes on students’ STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics)–related career intentions and course achievement. We define an interest quorum as a science class where students perceive a high level of interest for the subject matter from their classmates. We hypothesized that students who experience such an interest quorum are more likely to choose STEM careers. Using data from a national survey study of students‘ experiences in high school science, we compared the effect of five levels of peer interest reported in biology, chemistry, and physics courses on students‘ STEM career intentions. The results support our hypothesis, showing a strong, positive effect of an interest quorum even after controlling for differences between students that pose competing hypotheses such as previous STEM career interest, academic achievement, family support for mathematics and science, and gender. Smaller positive effects of interest quorums were observed for course performance in some cases, with no detrimental effects observed across the study. Last, significant effects persisted even after controlling for differences in teaching quality. This work emphasizes the likely importance of interest quorums for creating classroom environments that increase students’ intentions toward STEM careers while enhancing or maintaining course performance.

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