Exploring the causes of initial interest and retention of interest in STEM

By Anita Krishnamurthi - February 2015


Maltese, A., Melki, C., & Weibke, H. (2014). The nature of experiences responsible for the generation and maintenance of interest in STEM. Science Education, 98(6), 937–962. doi:10.1002/sce.21132


Engaging and retaining student interest in STEM is a primary concern for educators, employers, and policymakers. In this paper, Maltese, Melki, and Wiebke examine when interest in STEM is “triggered” and how it is maintained. Previous research has indicated that early interest and a desire to pursue a science-related career are crucial factors in determining who sticks with STEM.

Here, the researchers dug into when the experiences that sparked interest occur, what types of experiences had the most effect, which students were most influenced, and which adults were involved in triggering and maintaining the interest.

Research Design

The research team surveyed nearly 8,000 students and faculty from colleges and universities across the U.S. They also posted an open survey link on the Scientific American website to recruit non-academic respondents. Respondents were divided into those who were currently pursuing STEM and those who were not based on their most recent “outcome,” such as having recently earned a degree or started a job in a STEM field.

The research team created a new survey instrument to explore factors that influenced respondents’ persistence or lack of persistence in STEM. The survey also asked about sources of early interest and about experiences with STEM in and out of school. The survey was retrospective in that it asked participants about past experiences. However, the questions also focused on recent, ongoing, or near-future experiences to minimize the biases inherent in recollection of past events.

Research Findings

The survey showed that most respondents first became interested in STEM before Grade 6. This early interest was consistent between the group that had stayed in STEM fields and the one that had not.

Differences among those who did and did not pursue STEM were more evident in the factors that triggered STEM interest. Many of those who persisted in STEM indicated that they had an “innate interest” that allowed them to persist despite obstacles. Based on previous research, the authors define “innate interest” as being motivated primarily by internal rather than external factors. Respondents defined as having innate interest tended not to remember specific triggers that motivated their interest in STEM. Rather, they claimed to have always been interested in science.

Important external motivators cited by those who remembered triggers included classes at school, activities involving making or tinkering with objects, media exposure to STEM, and playing or spending time outdoors.

Respondents who stayed in STEM were more likely to cite innate interest and tinkering as triggers while those who did not said they were motivated by external stimuli such as classes or visits to museums and zoos. This finding corroborates research by Boe and Hendrikson (2013), who found that “intrinsic interest” was an important predictor of which students continued with physics in college.

Interestingly, further analysis shows that respondents who said that they developed STEM interest later—near or in college—were significantly more likely to still be involved in STEM than those who developed interest early. This finding needs further dissection.

The researchers also examined who was key in triggering STEM interest. Parents topped the list at 29%, followed by teachers, who were cited by 26% of respondents who pursued STEM. As expected, parents and family members were crucial for triggering interest at young ages, and teachers were increasingly cited as key factors for respondents who said they developed interest in middle or secondary school.

However, the researchers found that the factors that helped to maintain interest in STEM were different from the initial triggers. In keeping with recent four-phase models of interest and ability development (Hidi & Renninger, 2006; Renninger & Su, 2012), respondents who said that they developed STEM interest in middle or high school indicated that their own interest was the most important reason they persisted in STEM. The next most important factor was acknowledgement of their abilities, as evidenced by good grades. Other factors included interesting classes and the influence of teachers and families.

At the college level, interesting classes and career or economic prospects were also important for maintaining STEM interest. Innate interest, however, was the most important factor for students who entered college intending to major in STEM and did so, as opposed to those who started to major in STEM but then switched.

Another interesting finding is that a quarter of those who majored in non-STEM fields as undergrads were working in STEM fields at the time of the survey. Indeed, nearly 20% of respondents who were no longer in college had “crossed over”: Either they had majored in STEM and but now worked in a non-STEM field or vice versa. Thus the notion of a linear STEM pipeline, which has been critiqued by, for example, Lyon, Jafri, & St. Louis (2012), needs to be questioned further.

Limitations of this study include a sample that is not necessarily representative and use of self-report instruments, which can be unreliable. The idea of “innate interest” and how it might relate to environmental and social factors in motivating persistence warrants further research.

Theoretical Basis 

The study references the four-phase model of interest development advanced by Hidi and Renninger (2006) in which (1) an initial triggered interest progresses to (2) a deeper involvement through external motivations, leading to (3) becoming more self-motivated and (4) staying motivated and engaged.

The paper also draws upon expectancy-value theory to examine why some people stick with STEM and others do not. This theory postulates that individuals’ inclination to take on a task is based on the value they place on the activity and whether they anticipate success.

Implications for Practice

The study provides further support for the idea that early experiences, particularly before Grade 6, are important for supporting interest in STEM fields. However, this does not appear to be a unique determinant of whether students stick with STEM. A variety of factors influence the choices and decisions students make at later stages.

But informal science programs can capitalize on this study’s findings by facilitating activities respondents cited as STEM interest triggers, such as making and tinkering activities and outdoor experiences. Participation in out-of-school-time STEM activities can provide students with exposure to and experiences in STEM. Informal science programs also can work to develop parents’ STEM interest, a crucial influence for younger children. Afterschool programs in particular often have greater access to parents and adult guardians than schools do.


Boe, M.V., & and Hendrickson, E.K. (2013). Love It or Leave It: Norwegian Students’ Motivations and Expectations for Postcompulsory Physics. Science Education, 97(4), 550-573.

Hidi, S., & Renninger, K. A. (2006). The four-phase model of interest development. Educational Psychologist, 41(2), 113–127.

Lyon, G., Jafri, J., & St. Louis, K. (2012). Beyond the pipeline: STEM pathways for youth development. Afterschool Matters, 16, 48–57.

Renninger, K. A., & Su, S. (2012). Interest and its development. In R. Ryan (Ed.), The Oxford handbook of human motivation (pp. 167–187). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Related Briefs:

  • Ballard, M. (2012). Program design supporting urban youth: An ISE research brief discussing Lyon et al.’s "Beyond the Pipeline: STEM Pathways for Youth Development." http://rr2p.org/article/239
  • Gutwill, J. P. (2014). Where do beliefs about our ability to do science originate? An ISE research brief discussing Chen & Usher, “Profiles of the sources of science self-efficacy.” http://rr2p.org/article/320