Careers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) are booming, according to Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce. In June, the center predicted that the total number of jobs requiring a bachelor's degree in a STEM field will grow 26 percent from 2010 to 2020, compared with the average 17 percent growth predicted for all careers.

But there's a problem: the National Science Foundation estimates that fewer than 23 percent of U.S. college students graduate with a bachelor's degree in a STEM field.

However, the number of students who graduate with a STEM degree more than doubles for college students who attend selective science, mathematics and technology (SMT) high schools or take part in university-led summer programs for gifted students, according to a recently completed study. Led by Rena Subotnik, PhD, director of APA's Center for Gifted Education Policy, and funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), the study explored the factors that keep students in STEM fields.

Among the study's most significant findings: Students are more likely to stick with STEM education when they participate in research in high schools, get ongoing mentoring from STEM professionals, have a strong motivation for problem-solving or have a parent in a STEM field.

Factors for success

Subotnik's study surveyed more than 3,500 selective science, math and technology high school graduates who had recently completed their undergraduate degrees. It compared them with more than 600 same-age peers who attended math and science summer programs run by Johns Hopkins University's Center for Talented Youth and Northwestern University's Center for Talent Development — a group the researchers referred to as Talent Search.

The researchers found that 50 percent of SMT graduates and 53 percent of Talent Search graduates went on to earn undergraduate degrees in a STEM field. These results suggest that enriching experiences in science and math may have more to do with a student's staying power in STEM than where he or she attends high school, says study co-author John Almarode, PhD, professor of education at James Madison University.

"It wasn't until we started to ask Talent Search graduates about their experiences that we realized, ‘Hey, these students had enriching experiences in science and math after age 12 as well, but they either didn't have access to a specialized high school or didn't want to go to a specialized high school,'" he says. "These students sought out a different way to develop their STEM interest, so now we treat them like an additional model, rather than a comparison group."

The researchers also found that students whose parents worked in STEM fields had a big influence over whether the children completed a STEM field degree in college. Talent Search graduates with parents in STEM were twice as likely and SMT graduates with a parent in STEM were nearly 1.5 times as likely to graduate college with a STEM degree.

That finding may have implications for how educators work to engage and broaden the participation of underrepresented groups in the STEM fields, including women and minorities, says Martin Storksdieck, PhD, director of the Board on Science Education at the National Research Council.

"We need to think about what we can do for children who don't have parents in STEM and who don't have strong parental guidance and support," Storksdieck says. "An alternative model may be encouraging schools to tap into their alumni networks or to reach out to researchers and other people in their community to serve as mentors for these students."

Another signature factor that plays a role in predicting STEM degree completion is participation in a high school research experience, the study suggests. Overall, study participants — particularly women — who took part in high school research projects were nearly two times more likely to complete a STEM degree than those who did not. While previous research has demonstrated the importance of hands-on experience for average and struggling students, this study confirms it's effective for gifted ones as well, Storksdieck says.

"When you give students an opportunity to really do science at an early age — to engage in engineering challenges, to futz around with technology — you are much more likely to keep them on the path to STEM degree completion," he says. "Some have thought that because talented students tend to learn things so fast, they may not need to go into the lab to get it, but it turns out they do have to be in there in order to really get the sense for it and want to continue doing it."

Next steps

The research team is now conducting follow-up interviews with study participants to get more information about the factors the students say contributed to their persistence or non-persistence in STEM.

It's information that may contribute to helping scientists better understand some of the "soft skills" that seem to contribute to success in the STEM fields, says Richard Duschl, PhD, director of the Division of Research on Learning at the National Science Foundation. Non-cognitive factors such as motivation, self-control and an ability to stick with a task or a problem in the face of challenges might be linked to staying in the STEM fields, he says.

"We have bright, gifted and talented kids who might be great writers, but they don't seem to enjoy or have the knack for working their way through a complex problem in math or engineering," Duschl says. "It's a challenging task, just like writing something very well, but it brings a different set of skills to the table."

The goal of this work is not only to help SMT schools ensure they include key experiences in their curricula, but also to help non-SMT schools recognize students with a talent for STEM, Duschl adds.

"We really need to understand these factors … and how we can build them into the learning environment."

Amy Novotney is a writer in Chicago.