Varied STEM Paths: An Analysis of the Post-Secondary Career Interests of the Participants of an Informal Science Program

Author: ORCID icon
Skeeles-Worley, Angela, Education - School of Education and Human Development, University of Virginia
Tai, Robert, CU-Curr Instr & Sp Ed, University of Virginia

For many years, policy makers and science education researchers in the United States (Rozek, Svoboda, Harackiewicz, Hulleman, & Hyde, 2017) and internationally (DeWitt et al., 2010) have expressed concern over a decline in the number of students who are prepared for and/or interested in careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). Of special concern is the underrepresentation of women and racial/ethnic minorities in STEM careers (Blickenstaff 2005; Chang, Eagan, Lin, & Hurtado, 2011; Estrada et al. 2016). Out-of-school science programs have been shown to be effective spaces to spark and foster science interest (Dabney et al., 2012; Price et al., 2019), and are important tools to narrow opportunity gaps (Deutsch, 2019).

More longitudinal studies are needed to show how the STEM career interests of young adults change as they leave high school and participate in college and careers. Likewise, more longitudinal studies are needed to understand the effects of participation in out-of-school science programs on career interests. This study fills both needs through the investigation of the STEM career interests and science aspirations of a group of 228 participants, 63 of whom participated in the Science Minors and Achievers Program housed in the Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago, over five years. Chi-square analysis, Sankey diagrams, and mixed effect modeling were used to answer the following four research questions:

1. Was there an association between condition (Science Minors and Achievers Program participation), gender, socioeconomic class, or race/ethnicity and the STEM career interests of participants in the five years after secondary school?

2. How stable was STEM career interest over three, four, and five year periods after secondary school? Did this stability vary by condition or gender?

3. How did field of STEM career interest vary by condition, gender, or race/ethnicity?

4. Did STEM career aspiration vary by year, condition, gender, race/ethnicity, socioeconomic class, or the interactions between these variables in the five years after post-secondary school?

Consistently across analyses, there was a significant association between participation in the Science Minors and Achievers (SMA) program (condition) and STEM career interest and science aspirations. Sankey diagrams uncovered considerable movement through STEM career interest categories over time, even amongst participants who began and ended time intervals in the same category. The year after high school was an important decision-making period, especially for participants interested in STEM careers and those identifying as female. Chi-square analysis showed condition and gender patterns in reported field of STEM career interest. The gender patterns reflect underrepresentation patterns of women in STEM fields. However, post-hoc analyses elucidated significant differences within the comparison group but not the SMA group, which may be indicative of a mediating effect of participation in the SMA program on gender representation disparities in STEM fields.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
science education, STEM career interests, science museum, youth development program, informal science program, out-of-school science program, gender, longitudinal, Sankey diagrams
Sponsoring Agency:
University of VirginiaNational Science FoundationMuseum of Science and Industry, Chicago
All rights reserved (no additional license for public reuse)
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