• by Paula Martin Johnson, M.A. • IDRA Newsletter • February 2012Paula Johnson •

A report published in 2010 by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) suggests that the Administration concentrate its efforts on preparing and inspiring students to pursue college and career paths in the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields to build a stronger foundation for the country’s economic future. The council’s two-pronged approach proposes to prepare students for rigorous study of STEM courses with relevant application and also to inspire a new crop of young U.S. scholars to pursue professions in these disciplines. The report identifies a variety of factors that contribute to the despairingly low percentages of STEM professionals in our country. Such components include the need for federal funding, shared standards, a research- and inquiry-based instructional approach, and systemic restructuring. The key ingredient to the entire equation however is the students involved.

In recent years, the United States has found itself slipping from prestigious first place into the middle or lower quartiles of the race between world leaders in the areas of math and science. Study after study is concluding that the proficiency level in STEM subjects of today’s youth across our nation is steadily declining. Moreover, the poor level of interest in STEM related fields by traditionally underrepresented populations continues to seriously limit their participation in well-paid, high-growth professions in the STEM workforce. As a result, potential income is prevented from flowing into these same communities.

There has been a common myth held by the general population of degreed individuals – especially teachers – as to the sequence of events that takes place once students have reached their junior or senior year of high school. The assumption is that students will inevitably choose a college, apply and take the necessary exams, be accepted, and subsequently choose a major course of study. After four years of hard work and persistence, they will graduate and begin their new well-paying job and thrive on the road to a highly rewarding life. This is, after all, what happened for many of us. There were no major struggles. It was expected.

Unfortunately, this is not the case for most of today’s students. We were the exception, not the rule. Students today face a new set of challenges just to finish high school. An alarmingly high number of elementary and secondary students are showing evidence of many gaps in learning that are detrimental not only to their hopes for college but also for their livelihoods.

So it begs the question, what was the magic ingredient that worked for so many of us in the past? Did we possess superhuman intelligence or mental abilities? How is it possible that so many minorities and women have achieved degrees to date, but so few when compared to their non-minority and male counterparts? The underrepresen­tation of minority groups and women in STEM areas denies our nation the full benefit of their talents and denies science and engineering the rich diversity of perspectives and inspiration that drive those fields.

Research is leading toward a definitive factor in the minimal attraction of traditionally non-represented students into STEM areas of study: relevance. Studies are repeatedly showing that it is not necessarily a case of aptitude, but of desire, that is keeping so many of our potential engineers, scientists, mathematical innovators and technology experts to enter the arena of STEM studies and pursue careers in these fields. The widespread conclusions being drawn are that we are doing a poor job both in relating the amazing opportunities that these professions can provide and in exposing minority students and girls to the possibilities they have of attaining them.

Early attitudes toward math and science – as early as the eighth grade – have been shown to significantly predict if a student would be a likely candidate for a STEM career. Maltese & Tai asked students a series of questions to indicate how strongly they agreed with statements surrounding the usefulness of mathematics, how comfortable they were with asking questions in class, and if math was a class they looked forward to attending (2010). These questions along with performance on standardized tests in the areas of math, science and reading, and the type of job they desired to have by age 30 were used as variables in predicting their pursuit of STEM related degrees. Maltese & Tai attribute the interconnectedness of classroom experiences, student interest and persistence in a student’s aspiration of completing a degree in STEM.

Students have a tendency to only focus on their immediate surroundings. Therefore, if they have friends and relatives in particular occupations, they are going to become familiar with routines, conversations and lifestyles associated with them. Their interest may be further piqued if it is a topic of study in one of their classes.

Preparation and a lack of exposure and role models can further impair a young learner’s decision to strive for a career in the STEM environment. Tonya Groover, a graduate computer science student at the University of Pittsburgh declares, “If you never experienced technology, and technology does not influence your lifestyle in any way, shape or form, it’s going to be unlikely you’re going to grow up and want to be the person who develops technology that informs other people’s lives” (Chute, 2009). Many students do not yet have a strong family history of attending college. Many more see STEM professions as beyond their reach.

At the end of the day, we must do a better job of ensuring that traditionally underrepresented youth, including girls, become engaged in STEM related courses. For this to happen, schools must:

  • Be deliberate in their efforts to recruit more students and make STEM courses more accessible to minority students and girls
  • Expand extracurricular activities to include more STEM related projects
  • Increase out-of-class opportunities, such as after school, Saturday and summer programs, for students to become more proficient in math and science
  • Increase the engagement of parents and community members in promoting a STEM focused effort
  • Increase the number of teachers who are culturally and linguistically proficient to work with different student groups
  • Seek the involvement of universities, non-profit organizations and the private sector to collaborate by become actively involved in the schools’ STEM related efforts)
  • Provide greater opportunities to increase students’ interest and desire to become engaged in STEM related activities.

Most students only experience such encounters through outreach programs and other extracurricular forums. We have to catch and keep their attention while we have them in our classrooms! Teachers need more training and professional development to feed the curiosity of these future scientists and engineers. More collaboration between school districts and college faculty could cultivate a thriving pool of diverse learners eager to answer the call for new leaders in the STEM revolution.


Chute, E. “Lack of Diversity Part of Equation in STEM Fields,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (February 2009).

Maltese, A., & R. Tai. “Pipeline Persistence: Examining the Association of Educational Experiences with Earned Degrees in STEM Among U.S. Students,” Science Education (December 2010).

President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. Prepare and Inspire: K-12 Education in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) for America’s Future (Washington, D.C.: PCAST, September 2010).

Paula Martin Johnson, M.A. is a education associate in IDRA Field Services. Comments and questions may be directed to her via e-mail at feedback@idra.org.

[©2012, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the February 2012 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]