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September 7, 2011

Another Weird STEM Study

Writing here over a year ago in The Misguided Push for STEM Diversity, I noted that "Sometimes it seems as though the most heavily researched, richly funded area of American science today involves studies of why there aren't more women in STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) and efforts to induce, recruit, and retain more of them."

Now, Inside Higher Ed reports in Why They Chose STEM, Microsoft and Harris Interactive, a polling company, have added to the pile by surveying 500 STEM-studying undergraduates across the country about when and why they decided to study STEM. Unsurprisingly, there were no surprises.

The new study largely reinforces what was already known: that good teaching and preparation are key to attracting and keeping students' interest, said Jane Broom, director of community affairs at Microsoft. "We as a country have to find the political will and make the hard decisions to actually implement what research is telling us," she said.

Exactly why emphasizing good teaching and preparation is a hard decision and why we need to draw on our dwindling reserve of political will to implement it is not made clear. Perhaps as part of the next stimulus billboards could be put up across the country exhorting teachers to teach well and students to study hard.

Another unsurprising (but nevertheless interesting) finding of the survey was that — are you ready for this? — boys and girls are different. It “asked college students pursing STEM degrees and the parents of K-12 students about attitudes toward STEM education” and “found that male and female students enter the fields for different reasons: females are more likely to want to make a difference, while males are more likely to say they’ve always enjoyed games, toys or clubs focused on the hard sciences.”

I suppose now the question is whether we can summon the political will to create more science games and clubs for boys and…, well I’m not quite sure about the girls. Perhaps some slick marketing materials aimed at high school girls pushing the notion that “if you want to make a difference, build a bridge!”

Among the survey’s other findings were that

• 55% of students said they were well prepared for college, with females more likely to say they were well prepared

• Well-prepared students tended to decide to study STEM in high school; less well-prepared students decided in college

• Only 31% said “a good science education before college was 'absolutely essential' or 'extremely important' to college success." “Having a passion” and “studying hard” were the two factors most frequently cited as essential.

According to Microsoft’s Broom, “Those findings could help parents, schools and colleges tailor their appeals to students to pursue STEM degrees.”

Really? How? If Microsoft knows, it should create a plug-in for Windows that will instill a passion for science in students and induce them to study hard. If not, isn’t it about time to stem the tide of these incessant STEM studies?

Comments (2)

Mr Punch:

Some considerable part of the "deficit" of women in STEM fields appears to be a matter of classification: health-related subjects (and sometimes the life sciences themselves) don't count. This is more or less nonsense.

TXRed:

I'm a woman who combines STEM and humanities in my research (history with an emphasis on hydrology and climatology). I enjoy science but become bored easily in mathematics classes unless they focus on real-world applications. That makes me wonder: how many other women end up diverting into fields such as physical geography, environmental history or something similar because a pure STEM focus doesn't suit our interests or skills? How would we affect the "STEM deficit" if we could be counted in both categories?

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