Study: To Get High School Students Interested in STEM, Invest in Parents

By Liana Loewus — March 08, 2017 2 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

When parents of high schoolers are given guidance on how to talk about the importance of science and math, their children are more likely to score well on a STEM standardized test and, years later, pursue a STEM career, according to a recent study from the University of Virginia and the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

“What’s really interesting is that an intervention that targeted students’ attitudes about particular topics—math and science—led to increases in their knowledge and changes in their behavior,” Chris Hulleman, a research associate professor at the university and a co-author of the study, explained in an interview. “And once we affected their behavior in high school, this cascade of things happened in college.”

The parents of 11th and 12th graders were randomly assigned to either the intervention or a control condition. Those in the intervention group received two brochures and a link to a website explaining how math and science are useful in everyday life and careers and encouraging them to share the information with their children. The control group did not receive any materials.

“If you ask a typical parent to say why chemistry is important to a teenager, they often can’t really come up with an answer other than ‘It will help you in college,’” said Hulleman. “This was a really light-touch intervention. We thought maybe we can have an effect if we just get the information to parents.”

About 180 Wisconsin families participated in the research, which took place over five years.

Initial findings, released in 2012, showed that students were more likely to take science, technology, engineering, and math courses in high school if their parents received the information.

This recent follow-up looked at two other effects: 1) how those students had scored on the ACT college-entrance exam, and 2) their career aspirations, now that they are 20 years told.

Boost in STEM Scores and Career Aspirations

Students whose parents received the STEM brochures scored a statistically significant 12 percentile points higher on the math and science portions of the ACT than their peers in the control group.

The study showed that the effects followed these students to college as well. Because the students had better STEM preparation in high school, they were more likely to pursue STEM after high school. They reported taking more STEM courses in college and being more likely to have career aspirations in STEM.

“We targeted parents, who then had to change their interactions with students, who then had to change their behaviors, which then led to changes in college,” said Hulleman. “There are a lot of links in the chain here, so you might think it’s not really plausible. But we’re showing that, yeah, if we can affect students’ mindsets and motivations, it’s potentially powerful.”

The families that took part in the study had been participating in another longitudinal study for more than two decades, so they may have been a particularly engaged group. They were also all from Wisconsin and nearly all white. Because of the limitations of the sample, Hulleman cautions that the effects may not be generalizable.

“However, because we randomly assigned, we do feel comfortable making an inference that there was a causal effect in this group of families,” he said. “Whether this would work with a low-income, minority group in Houston or L.A., anyone can question that.”

Image: High school students conduct experiments in a physical-world concepts class at the L&N STEM Academy in Knoxville, Tenn.

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