Why it’s good to talk about STEM careers

inGenious study shows the value of discussing careers in STEM, in addition to teaching the subjects

Study after study highlights the worrying disengagement of young people from STEM subjects in school, and a decreasing interest in STEM careers (The Rose project, Sjøberg & Schreiner, 2010). We’re all concerned about it. If not, we wouldn’t be on this website, or part of the inGenious project.

Exposing pupils to both STEM subjects and their real-world applications, in collaboration with the commercial sector, is surely key to reversing the trend of disinterest. But how can we be sure we are maximising the number of students who will go on to become the scientists, technologists, engineers and mathematicians of the future?

A wide-ranging study

A research paper that has been submitted to the forthcoming ESERA (European Science Education Research Association) conference has some interesting insights into this question and identifies the key factors that decide if a student will be interested in pursuing STEM as a career – or not. These conclusions are the result of detailed analysis of responses to a questionnaire, completed by participants in the first inGenious pilot, which took place in 2012.

In total, 3,173 secondary school pupils in 21 European countries completed the questionnaire. 87% of the students were aged 11 to 16 years old, with the remainder being 17-plus. The sample was almost equally split 50-50 between boys and girls.

Career talk is key

The central finding of the study is that the number of students that want to go into STEM jobs can be increased significantly by discussing jobs and careers. In fact, the report’s authors have concluded that: “Adding the element of career learning to school STEM education could lead to a 20 or more percent increase in the number pupils positively considering a career in STEM.”

So, one very positive way to boost the number of your pupils who are not only interested in STEM, but also keen to take up careers with a strong science, technology, engineering or mathematical element, is to make sure they learn about relevant jobs and the people who do them. inGenious can help with this.

André Van Aperen, Jet-Net/Shell Coordinator at Shell NL, and Dr. Àgueda Gras-Velázquez, inGenious Coordinator, during the Shell sponsored chat on biofuels.

The benefits of a good chat

There are a number of inGenious activities that feature careers in STEM subjects, and they are proving to be popular with teachers and pupils alike. inGenious chats are regular, interactive webinar-based discussions that allow students to talk with experts and gain insights into careers in industry, while having an engaging STEM learning experience. You can find them in the Events section of this site and they have received plenty of positive, career-related feedback.

As an example, one teacher commented that a Shell-sponsored biofuels-related chat enabled 'my students to interact with experts in STEM topics…and to become aware of their work including projects, difficulties, daily routines, and careers'.

“Seeing ordinary people making changes in real life was inspirational”, wrote another, commenting on Microsoft's webinar on 'DeforestACTION'. “You start to believe that you can make a difference.” This successful activity was a collaborative learning event that allowed participants to listen to Dr Willie Smits and the Eco Warriors talk about the work they are doing with the Masarang Foundation, in the Borneo jungle.

A different approach to STEM for girls?

Another finding from the study was that regional and gender differences were not statistical influences on pupils' desires to work in STEM. This indicates that the inGenious approach should work just as well in Portugal as it does in Finland, and equally well with boys as girls.

One difference did emerge, however. Girls were 10% less likely to be influenced in their desire by talking about jobs in class. Whatever the reasons for this, perhaps they could be addressed by certain inGenious activities.

Commenting on a Chemistry: All About You! chat, one teacher wrote: “The most inspirational aspect was the information, mainly for girls, about the possibilities of finding a job in chemistry.”

Positive conclusions

Of course, as the report itself points out, there are many factors affecting career choice that are way beyond the influence of the classroom. Personality, cultural and socio-economic elements all help decide whether or not a child will eventually enter a STEM profession.

As educators, however, we can and should influence what happens in our places of learning, career-wise. And it is important to remember that making science lessons interesting or informing pupils about the social significance of STEM in themselves are not enough to point sufficient young people towards STEM careers.

But when information about STEM jobs and real life applications is integrated into STEM education in a way that has meaning for our students, this study shows it could trigger important changes in their career choices.

Helping to present STEM in a working context is a key element of the inGenious project. Fostering links with industry allows us to show pupils how they could use STEM knowledge in the real world, and demonstrate to them both the value and fulfilment of those professions. As a result, it is probably fair to say that this study validates both the inGenious philosophy, as well as its approach.

Further reading

As part of its learning resources, inGenious coordinates Communities of Practice, public discussion groups where teachers and industrial partners raise issues around a specific topic over a six-week period. The most recent community, about STEM careers, took a close look at different types of careers, gender equality, which skills are provided by schools and which school-industry initiatives exist to help promote and make STEM appealing to younger generations.

Find out more about the Community of Practice on STEM careers

Find out more about past and future Communities of Practice

Published: June 2013