Students exposed directly to work environments in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields are more likely to decide to follow paths that will lead to such careers, according to the findings of "Vocational Anticipatory Socialization of Adolescents: Messages, Sources, and Frameworks that Influence Interest in STEM Careers," published online today in the National Communication Association's Journal of Applied Communication Research.
In discussing the implications of the study findings, lead researcher Karen K. Myers, associate professor of communication at the University of California, Santa Barbara suggests that parents, schools and STEM professionals should take steps to expose more high school students to STEM careers through visits and internships. "Once students get a detailed picture of what it's like to work in one of these jobs, it can motivate them to overcome difficult obstacles and adopt a STEM job as a goal," she said.
In addition to studying the impact of exposure to a STEM workplace environment on choosing a STEM career, the authors also examined STEM career-related communications that high school students receive from parents and others, and how students filter those messages based on their career frameworks--whether they prioritize finding a job that fits their abilities, desires or goals.
"Students don't learn enough about STEM careers unless their parents work in STEM areas, and the messages they receive from parents, teachers and counselors frequently fail to address how students think about and evaluate potential career paths," says Myers.
The study's authors analyzed data they had gathered from 229 students who participated in 37 focus groups at five California high schools. About half of the participants were seniors, the rest roughly equal numbers of younger classes. About 41 percent of the participants were white, 34 percent Hispanic, 3 percent black, and the rest "other."
The students were asked about their career interests and specifically whether they were interested in STEM studies or careers. The focus groups also probed where students received information about different careers, and how much they weighted their performance in math and science classes in considering different career paths.
While most of the students had received career advice guiding them toward personal fulfillment, few reported that they had received specific details about careers in STEM fields or why they might enjoy them. Only a few students (1.8 percent) reported that they had received messages that made them aware of the opportunities for women and minorities in STEM fields, or of the general need for more professionals in these fields.
When students were asked about their frameworks for thinking about careers, the largest percentage said they wanted to pursue jobs they enjoyed. About one-third of the students had specific career goals. Adolescents with goal-based frameworks had a particular career goal and were willing to work hard, even sacrifice, to enter the career. This group, the authors suggest, would be especially receptive to vocational messages that helped them meet their goals. However, students learn surprisingly little about STEM careers from parents, teachers or guidance counselors, the authors write.
The authors also suggest that while parents are powerful sources of socialization in acceptable career paths, they frequently fail to give their children detailed information about careers. Thus, good experiences in math and science courses may be critical factors in generating interest in STEM careers. But students who don't do especially well in these classes tend to rule out such careers.
"Messages from career insiders who can contextualize the importance of science and math courses, and who emphasize hard work over ability, can play a key role in alleviating the leaking STEM pipeline," the authors write. "Organizations within STEM fields ... should work with high schools to create job-shadow opportunities that specifically provide exposure to job tasks and environments."
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