The researchers say there is no one path to a degree in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).
A study of 8,000 college students in STEM and non-STEM fields showed those who completed STEM degrees had varied triggers that sparked their interest in their respective fields and started looking into the field at a variety of ages.
The researchers found it was just as important to help students maintain their scientific or mathematical interests as it was to spark that interest. Most respondents in the study said it was their own passion for the field that was critical in pushing them to pursue STEM studies, according to an IU news release.
Researcher Adam Maltese, associate professor of science education at IU, said in the release that the importance of a student’s intrinsic interest shouldn’t keep teachers from encouraging students to pursue math and science.
“However, as the literature also suggests, this personally driven interest can develop over time,” he said. “Instead, as educators, our purpose becomes not just to teach content for understanding but also to teach to stimulate passion.”
About 34 percent of respondents in the survey said they developed an interest in STEM subjects on their own, while 26 percent said teachers were their biggest influence.
Additionally, people who said they first became interested in STEM in middle school or after were more likely to complete a degree than people who became interested at an earlier age. They were also more likely to say teachers were their primary influence.
“While these results support prior research indicating the importance of early experiences, we also see that experiences more proximal to college are associated with higher odds of pursuing STEM,” Maltese said in a news release.
Maltese and co-researchers Christina Melki and Heidi Wiebke, both doctoral students in science education, said it’s important to study both the start of a student’s interest in STEM and how that interest is maintained.
“While many individuals report getting interested in STEM early, for one reason or another they lose interest in STEM or gain stronger interest in other areas, and these experiences play a key role in their decisions when selecting an academic or career field,” Maltese said in the release.
Maltese said an experience studying STEM might deepen one student’s passion for the subject, while other students might become interested in STEM subjects for the first time after having the same ?experience. That support and experience needs to come from a variety of sources, the research found.
“We see a few trends in the data showing more preferential pathways to STEM,” Maltese said in the release. “But, generally, the results indicate that there are many combinations of the events and timing that spark and maintain interest. This precludes finding a ‘silver bullet’ intervention, but it is really important as it indicates there are multiple ways to enter these paths.”