Strong pre-college STEM experiences linked to later notable achievements in STEM

By Bronwyn Bevan - June 2011


Wai, J., Lubinski, D., Benbow, C.P. & Steiger, J.H. (2010). Accomplishment in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) and its relation to STEM educational dose: A 25-year longitudinal study. Journal of Educational Psychology, 102(4), 860–871.

This research reports on the results of two studies which found that mathematically talented students who had had greater exposure to accelerated, enriched, and individualized STEM learning opportunities achieved more significant STEM accomplishments later in life than their matched counterparts. Notable accomplishments were designated as achieving STEM careers, STEM PhDs, STEM tenure, STEM publications, and STEM patents. The researchers found this relationship to hold true even when controlling for high levels of motivation. Furthermore, the research found that experiences that were more individualized (such as participating in STEM contests or working on inventions, as opposed to attending Advanced Placement (AP) courses) had a greater correlation with notable STEM accomplishments. An important implication from these findings for ISE educators is the need to ensure that students have access to a wide spectrum of enriching and accelerated learning opportunities, and, in particular, that opportunities include those that are individualized.

The researchers define what they call STEM dosage as both accelerated and enriching opportunities. Accelerated opportunities include AP courses or taking college courses while in high school. Enrichment activities include STEM clubs, inventions, contests, and writing opportunities. While most longitudinal studies look at the impact of an AP course on outcomes, these researchers argue that since not all students have access to the same accelerated learning opportunities, a more complex “treatment” (which they define as STEM dosage) must be contemplated. For example, AP courses may be limited in some schools, but additional OST opportunities may be available or pursued independently.

The study compared roughly 1500 students who had been identified, a quarter of a century earlier, as mathematically gifted (based on test scores). At several points over the years, these students were surveyed about past experiences in accelerated and enrichment experiences in STEM. The research found a positive relationship between higher STEM dosage and outcomes in the notable STEM achievements (PhDs, careers, tenure, and publications; but not STEM patents). Moreover, the study found that enrichment experiences that were more individualized (e.g., taking part in STEM projects or inventions), rather than the accelerated activities of the AP courses, had a greater correlation with notable STEM achievements. The message here may be that there is a need to ensure that students have access to diverse opportunities, as per their needs at different stages; and not to mandate a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach.

In the second study, the researchers examined the achievements of students who were enrolled in the country’s top STEM graduate programs, and therefore might be assumed to be among the most highly motivated STEM learners. In this analysis, the trends identified in the first study held true. Thus, even within a highly motivated group, higher STEM dosage was related to more significant STEM achievements. The researchers interpret this finding to mean that motivation alone was not the cause of notable STEM achievements, but rather the diverse and individualized STEM dosage that students received during their pre-college years.