Interest vs. Intent: The New STEM Gap?

A report points to a gap between the students’ expressed interest in STEM and their intentions to pursue STEM careers

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Far more students express an interest in STEM but do end up pursuing STEM careers.

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A new report has identified another issue in the nation’s STEM crisis – and, possibly, a way to steer more students into science, technology, engineering and math jobs. 

The report, released Wednesday by ACT, the college readiness assessment testing company, points to a gap between the levels of students’ expressed interest in STEM areas and their intentions to pursue STEM careers. 

[SPECIAL REPORT: STEM Solutions]

“The good news is that student interest in STEM is high overall,” said Jon Erickson, ACT president of education and career solutions. “The bad news is that a sizable number of students may not be connecting the dots between their innate interests and a potential STEM-related career.” The company has recently built STEM scores and benchmarks into their new ACT Aspire system.

“The Condition of STEM 2013” is based on data from nearly 1.8 million U.S. students who took the ACT college readiness assessment test before graduating from high school in 2013. The study measured the students’ “expressed interest,” or what they say they’re interested in studying, vs. their “measured interest,” which was based on their responses to a series of questions designed to measure preferences for different types of “work tasks.” 

[READ: Teaching STEM Through Flight Simulation]

Of the nearly 1.8 million students in the study, just 293,306 (16.3 percent) had both an expressed and a measured interest in STEM; 421,585 (23.4 percent) had an expressed interest only, indicating they were thinking of pursuing a STEM career even though they may not be well suited for one; and 153,303 (8.5 percent) had a measured interest in STEM but said they had no desire to go into a STEM field. The rest – 931,049 students – had no interest in STEM at all.

“Early assessment and intervention are extremely important in helping students get on track for college and career success, and that’s particularly true in the areas of math and science, where so many of our students are falling behind,” said Erickson. “If we encourage young students who are interested in STEM to consider related careers, I believe both they and U.S. employers will benefit.”

The report also found:

  • Students’ achievement levels in math and science were highest when their expressed and measured interest in STEM matched. 
  • Forty-six percent of female test-takers expressed an interested in STEM – mainly nursing (LPN and BS/RN) programs.
  • Among lower-achieving students, more girls were interested in STEM than boys, though the opposite was true among higher-achieving students.
  • Students who are interested in STEM tend to have higher academic aspirations – and have parents who are more likely to have attended college -- than students who are not interested in STEM. 
  • Male students consistently out-performed female students in math and science testing in groups that expressed interest in the hard sciences, mathematics, computer science, and health sciences – but not engineering and technology.
  • Female students were prevalent among those with both an expressed and measured interest in STEM, which contradicts the assumption that women are not drawn to STEM fields. 

“Nothing is more costly to the nation than untapped potential, and that’s why we must do more to ensure that all students understand the career opportunities that match their interests, particularly those that exist in important STEM fields,” said Erickson. “If we can identify students earlier and then keep them engaged, they may be more likely to choose a STEM career.”

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  • Lylah Alphonse

    Lylah M. Alphonse is the Managing Editor of News for U.S. News & World Report. You can follow her on Twitter or e-mail her at LAlphonse@usnews.com.