Combating Students' Disinterest in the Sciences

Students show diminishing desire to pursue a career in the sciences despite rosy job prospects.

By + More

American students may be intimidated by the potential of spending their professional lives solving complex derivatives or may see little glamour in sporting a lab coat to work. No matter the reason, it's clear that there's declining interest among teenagers in pursuing careers in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), surveys indicate.

In a survey of 533 high school students nationwide conducted in April jointly by the University of the Sciences in Philadelphia and Harris Interactive, 49 percent of respondents said they were "definitely not" or "probably not" planning on pursuing a career in science or healthcare. This marks an 8.9 percent increase in disinterest compared to a similar survey conducted last year. Though half of the students indicated they might pursue a career in the sciences, "might" is the key word, says Russell DiGate, provost of the University of the Sciences. A lesser percentage of semi-interested students will actually have a career in a scientific field, he claims. 

While interest is waning, demand is rising sharply—driven by the ongoing wave of baby boomer retirements and new technologies that create more STEM-centric jobs, DiGate notes. In fact, about a third of the nation's fastest growing jobs are in STEM-related fields, such as healthcare and computer science, according to projections from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. 

[Read about efforts to improve STEM education.] 

"There are literally millions of new and pre-existing jobs that are going to be available to our kids," DiGate says. "A lot of [their reluctance] is fear of science being hard or ... feel[ing] they're not good enough at it … Just because something is hard doesn't mean you don't do it." 

In an effort to combat the diminished interest in STEM among America's youth, government programs are offering financial rewards for those who choose to solve equations and analyze compounds in their professional lives. The SMART Scholarship program offered by the Department of Defense, for instance, provides a full scholarship and paid internship at the DOD, among other benefits, for any American student who pursues a STEM degree at the undergraduate or graduate level. After receiving their diplomas, students are required to work for the DOD, spending, at the very least, a year in the job for each academic year they received the scholarship. 

Additionally, the Robert Noyce Teacher Scholarship Program provided by the National Science Foundation offers varying levels of scholarship money for STEM majors who parlay their degree into a job teaching their field at the K-12 level. 

[Learn about another STEM teacher training program.] 

Other scholarship and loan forgiveness programs targeting STEM students were approved for funding by the 2007 America COMPETES Act, which was intended to disburse as much as $60 billion in incentives for STEM students and professionals. However, with numerous programs being slashed in recent federal budget cuts, the program hasn't received anywhere near the proposed levels of funding, says James Brown, executive director of the STEM Education Coalition, a Washington, D.C.-based STEM advocacy group. "A victory in this moment means that your program is not getting cut," he adds. 

The growth of STEM on the state and university level can be spurred, at least in part, by incentives from major employers. Brown points to a Volkswagen plant built in Tennessee, which produced its first consumer car in April. The German automaker picked Tennessee, in part, because the state government guaranteed it could stock the plant with skilled STEM workers who were either trained at state universities or plucked from outside the state to fill any shortages. "[States' STEM initiatives] are driven by CEOs saying, 'We need this to be competitive,'" Brown says. 

[See more CEOs who want higher STEM standards.] 

Some schools, by design, stimulate interest in the sciences. At Colorado College, a liberal arts school with an enrollment of 2,000, roughly 35 percent of students graduate with a degree in the hard sciences, about double that of most liberal arts institutions, says Mark Hatch, the school's vice president for enrollment. He credits the school's schedule, in which students participate in only one class at a time over a 3½ week period.