Call the CDC! Interest in STEM May Be ‘Contagious’ in High School

By Stephen Sawchuk — August 09, 2017 2 min read

You don’t have to be inherently interested in epidemiology to catch the science bug—just sit next to a bunch of other high school students fascinated by the topic, says a new analysis.

In all, the study found, new college students are more likely to say they plan to pursue STEM careers when they were surrounded by other enthusiastic scientists-to-be in high school;—even controlling for factors like interest in science, previous achievement in the field, or parental support for studying science, says the study, which appears in the open-access journal Science Advances, a publication of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

The study is based on a survey of a nationally representative population of students in 50 college and universities in the United States.

The team of seven researchers surveyed nearly 6,800 college students taking mandatory freshman English courses. The students were queried about their background in high school biology, chemistry, and physics classes, and their academic performance in those classes, as well as their future career interest in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics field. They were also asked for their perceptions of the level of science interest among their peers in those classes.

The researchers found a clear positive link between reported levels of peer interest in the high school classes and the college students’ likelihood of pursuing a job in a STEM-related career field. And the findings held up after the researchers controlled for potential outside influences, like high grades in high school science classes or level of teacher quality. Similar patterns also showed up for each of the three content areas—biology, chemistry, and physics.

The findings seem to suggest that interest in STEM can be transferred as a kind of “emotional contagion,” a concept used to explain why experiencing a certain emotional state, like having the giggles or smiling, seems to affect people nearby. What’s more, the authors say, it indicates that motivation is a significant, if understudied, factor in the conversation about STEM education.

“Future research in this area should investigate the mechanisms by which interest is transmitted among peers and, particularly, what curricular and pedagogical choices made by teachers will allow this transmission,” the researchers wrote. “It would also be informative to understand curricular and pedagogical effects that are unique to each discipline because different content requires different strategies to motivate students.”

There is, of course, a big caveat to these findings in terms of building a pipeline to STEM-related jobs: Expressing interest in pursuing a STEM career is a lot different from actually majoring in a related field, navigating each discipline’s hurdles (organic chemistry, anyone)? and securing a good job in it.

Tracking that over time, of course, would require a much more complicated study with a longitudinal design. But, at least based on these suggestive findings, it might warrant the effort.

Photo: Licensed under Flickr/Creative Commons.

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