This excerpt of a paper from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences pretty much sums up everything I’m trying to do to help high school students access bachelor’s degree-level STEM careers, and it’s peer-reviewed.

The Wisconsin Study of Families and Work achieved dramatic results in improving attainment of bachelor’s degree-level STEM careers by reaching out to the parents of high school students through both brochures and an informational web site. I have copied an excerpt from the introduction of a paper the study’s investigators published on their results in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2017. This excerpt explains the “why” of outreach to high school parents, which is an activity I’ve spent considerable time on during the last several years. The paper itself is available for download below the text. A graph of the top 25 college majors by salary from the 2015 report “Economic Value of College Majors” by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce is shown below the file link.

One way to develop students’ mathematics and science skills is to increase enrollment in STEM courses in high school. Research supports the link between increased exposure to STEM topics in classes and higher STEM achievement (9). However, students are allowed to opt out of elective STEM courses in high school, and as a result, many students are not exposed to the advanced mathematics or science classes necessary to attain postsecondary STEM degrees. For example, in 2009 only 17.8% of high school students enrolled in physics and 21.0% enrolled in calculus or precalculus (10).

The importance of high-school STEM preparation can be seen when examining students’ STEM career pursuit after high school and in college. Research shows that advanced high-school mathematics (e.g., algebra II, calculus) and science (e.g., physics, chemistry) courses are crucial predictors of STEM major enrollment in college (1, 11). Furthermore, in college there is a high degree of attrition from STEM majors. For example, only 62% of students between 2003 and 2009 who entered 4-y colleges as STEM majors graduated with a bachelor degree from a STEM domain, and insufficient STEM preparation in high school plays a role in this lack of persistence toward STEM careers (1, 2, 12). Thus, not only is STEM preparation in high school lacking, but it also affects entry into STEM majors in college, persistence toward those majors, and ultimately entry into STEM careers.

Although many factors contribute to the lower levels of STEM preparation and career pursuit, research in psychology shows that this is, in part, a motivational problem (13). Expectancy-value theory posits that individuals make achievement-related choices, such as how hard they will study for a test or the types of courses in which they enroll, based on (i) their expectations for success and (ii) their subjective task value (i.e., the importance of a task) (13). Expectancy-value theory defines different types of subjective task value: intrinsic value (a task is important because it is enjoyable), attainment value (a task is important because it is related to your identity), and utility value (a task is important because it is relevant or useful for a current or future goal). Researchers have recently focused on increasing students’ perceived utility value with interventions because it is viewed as malleable to outside forces. Furthermore, correlational and longitudinal research has shown that utility value is a significant predictor of mathematics and science course-taking and STEM major enrollment (1, 14, 15). Thus, intervening to increase students’ perceived utility value in STEM domains is one promising direction for increasing students’ high-school STEM preparation as well as STEM career pursuit.

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