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College & Workforce Readiness

ACT Cites ‘New STEM Gap': Interest v. Intention

By Liana Loewus — February 06, 2014 1 min read
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A report issued this week claims there’s a “new STEM gap": The disconnect between those students who say they plan to pursue STEM careers and those who demonstrate a genuine interest in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

The ACT study looks at the “expressed and measured interests” of the 1.8 million high school graduates from the class of 2013 who took the ACT college-readiness assessment. In other words, it compares the careers students said they would pursue (expressed) to the types of work tasks they preferred based on a battery of questions (measured).

Nearly 1 in 10 graduates showed a preference for STEM-type activities but indicated they had no interest in a STEM career. But perhaps even more interestingly, 23 percent of students expressed an interest in pursuing a STEM major or career but did not show a preference for STEM-type tasks—which very well could mean they don’t know what STEM work involves.

All told, 48 percent of graduates had either expressed or measured interest in STEM majors or careers, according to the report.

The charts included in the report were, well, confusing. So I simplified and made my own (please ignore the fact that the scale is ... estimated):

The ACT press release harps on the “untapped pool” of students who like but are not pursuing advanced study of STEM (the 9 percent), and the report emphasizes the need for “guiding and nurturing” them. The report also says that achievement levels are highest when the two types of interests match, and that females were more likely to fall into that category than males.

But I’m still curious about the nearly 1 in 4 students whose plans to pursue STEM don’t align with their demonstrated interests. What does this gap mean about high school STEM instruction? Why do these students think they like STEM when objective measures show they do not? Or are they planning to pursue STEM for financial reasons? Lots of questions left unasked.

In addition, the report offers some evidence of continuing gender and racial gaps in STEM achievement. However, it notes that a “surprising” 46 percent of females overall are interested in STEM, of which the majority showed interest in nursing.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.