Young people’s choices for further study in STEM

By Heather King - June 2011


Vetleseter Bøe, M., Henriksen, E.K., Lyons, T. & Schreiner, C. (2011). Participation in science and technology: Young people’s achievement-related choices in late-modern societies. Studies in Science Education47(1), 37–72.

This study examines student choices relating to the selection of STEM courses for high school and university study. The main focus here is on the subjective value of the choice as perceived by the individual, and the individual’s expectation of success in the subject or study. The argument put forward in this study is supported by a broad and international body of literature, and highlights a number of key factors affecting students’ (and especially girls’) engagement with STEM subjects. This discussion will have particular significance for ISE educators currently working to promote youth engagement with STEM by providing opportunities to meet practicing scientists and thus potentially supplying role models and enabling the youth to develop an identity as science learners and future scientists.

The authors begin their discussion by acknowledging that the problem with student enrollment is not consistent across all STEM fields. Nonetheless, they note that in general, developed countries are witnessing a ‘flight from science’ by the young people. They argue that understanding this disinterest is critical not only because a STEM-literate workforce is required for economic success and democratic participation, but also for several other reasons. Furthermore, they point out, the engagement of more women in STEM is necessary to provide a greater diversity of perspectives and innovations.

The authors use Eccles et al (1983) expectancy-value model of achievement-related choices to examine student choices. This model considers the students’ personal goals, expectations of success, and also the subjective values of interest, attainment, utility, and relative cost. These subjective values are discussed in depth in the paper, but the key points are summarized as follows:

• School science appears to be unable to meet students’ personal interest in STEM topics.
• The interests of girls and boys are different: girls express interest in human health and wellbeing whilst boys prefer technology and physics, although they are less interested in everyday applications (e.g.. electricity) than the more exotic concepts (relativity).
• Young people today see their interests as part of their identity. Thus, they make subject choices in line with what they would like to see themselves to be. For example, someone who wants to be perceived as clever may choose an advanced mathematics class rather than a ‘simple’ economics course.
• Students will not choose STEM subjects if they do not see themselves as (or do not have a role model for) a STEM professionals.
• Some students choose a STEM subject because they acknowledge its gate-keeping function for entry into a higher education course. Thus, they afford it a high utility, but do not necessarily enjoy it.
• Choices are also based on notions of relative cost, i.e., the negative aspects of one choice relative to another. For example, is it worth taking a course to please one’s parents? Should a student choose an easier subject over advanced mathematics in order to ensure a good grade?
• Students’ sense of mastery or lack thereof shapes their expectations of success. Unfortunately, there is evidence that it is more difficult to score good marks in the physical sciences than in other subjects and this has an adverse impact on the students’ self-perception of future success.

The authors conclude by arguing that a greater understanding of the reasons behind young peoples’ choices, as structured by expectancy-value models, is essential for informing the design of new initiatives promoting increased STEM participation. With regard to the particular expertise of the ISE field, the findings presented in this study point, in particular, to the need to provide:

• Greater access to role models in STEM. Female and minority role models are especially required.
• Resources that meet the particular interests of young people.
• Opportunities to validate the emerging identities of young people as future STEM practitioners, or future STEM-literate citizens.

Reference cited: 

Eccles, J., Adler, T.F., Futterman, R., Goff., S.B., Kaczala, C.M., Meece, J.L. & Midgely, C. (1983). Expectancies, values and academic behaviours. In J.T. Spence (ed.). Achievement and achievement motives: Psychological and sociological approaches (pp. 75–146). San Francisco: W.H. Friedman.