Parents May Matter a Lot More Than Schools for Getting Kids Into Science

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Hispanic boy dressed as scientist --- Image by ? Hill Street Studios/Blend Images/Corbis
Photo: Hill Street Studios/Corbis

There’s a big conversation going on in the United States about how to produce either more STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) college graduates, or more female ones — opinions differ on whether there’s a bona fide shortage, but just about everyone agrees that males are over-represented in the field. The best bet for doing so, of course, is to get kids really jazzed about these subjects from a relatively early age. To better understand how students end up in these fields, researchers at George Mason University surveyed students in a competitive summer research program at that university. They just published the results in CBE—Life Sciences Education, and the short, not-entirely-surprising answer? Parents matter. A lot.

The researchers surveyed 149 participants in the Aspiring Scientists Summer Internship, in which high school and college students conduct actual research with GMU professors. “The majority — 65.5 percent — said science experiences with a family member or a childhood activity piqued their initial interest,” notes the study’s press release. “Hands-down, 92.6 percent of the students said hands-on lab experience cemented their decision to make a career in a STEM field.”

Here are the rest of the results:

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It’s clear, then, that stuff that goes on outside the classroom has the biggest impact. Does that mean schools are useless as a means of getting kids into STEM stuff? Not at all. For instance, about one in ten of the participants listed either a high-school teacher or in-class experiment as the biggest factor that pushed them into a STEM field. It’s just that these factors weren’t as important.

This makes sense when you think about it. Which had a bigger impact on you, your family, and the activities they encouraged you to participate in, or what went on at school? I’d guess that for most people, parents and family are a lot more formative. And this survey, while only dealing with one group of potentially non-representative young people, hints that parents are going to have to take a leading role in getting more kids, especially girls, into these fields.