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College of Education > News and Publications > 2016: 07-09 news > Addressing the STEM crisis through career development

Addressing the STEM crisis through career development

New research out of the College of Education shows that students who participate in career development and readiness courses related to their STEM majors are less likely to switch to another major.

Diandra Prescod, assistant professor of counselor education
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — The United States is in a STEM crisis, according to a Penn State researcher. Each year, millions of jobs centered on science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) go unfilled because of a lack of skilled workers and it is predicted that by 2018, approximately 2.4 million STEM jobs will remain vacant. Now, a new study shows that career development may help address the growing crisis.

“From freshman to sophomore year, nearly 50 percent of college students who are interested in STEM drop their major and go to something else,” said Diandra Prescod, assistant professor of counselor education at Penn State.

Additionally, of those students who do graduate from a STEM major, just 25 percent of females and 45 percent of males actually move on to work in a STEM field. “We already have this small number of graduates that gets even smaller when you look at who’s actually going into the STEM workforce,” she said.

While students’ reasons for leaving a STEM major vary, Prescod said there is one commonality — students do not adequately research their major to understand what it entails.

“Many times, students have their parents or whoever telling them that they’ll make money in STEM or that they’ll be sure to get a job,” Prescod said. “They don’t do a lot of exploration when it comes to these majors so they’re surprised when they start classes. They don’t know how much schooling it takes or how hard some classes are. A lot of the courses are difficult so when they experience, for example, getting their first C when they’re used to getting A’s and B’s in high school, they switch their major because they think it’s too difficult.”

Research looking at the factors that cause students to leave STEM majors has been done, she said. But studies investigating the use of career development to successfully predict STEM retention rates is something new.

“We wanted to see how we could incorporate career development into STEM initiatives to focus on keeping undergraduate students in their STEM major and be successful,” she said.

Nearly 50 percent of students interested in the STEM field switch majors by their sophomore year. This had led to an national crisis as millions of STEM jobs go unfilled each year as a result of unskilled workers.
To test the idea, Prescod, along with Melissa Dagley, Cynthia Young and Christopher Belser of the University of Central Florida and Andrew Daire, dean of the School of Education at Virginia Commonwealth University, created a year-long career development intervention program for college freshmen that included students who did not declare a major, students interested in STEM and students enrolled in a STEM major.

Throughout the course, students complete assessments to measure negative career thoughts and readiness to make vocational decisions; attend lectures by STEM faculty and industry professionals; participate in various experiential learning opportunities; and draft academic and career goals and action plans. They also have the opportunity to shadow a STEM professional and complete a hands-on activity with that professional.

“Now, an industrial engineer doesn’t seem so far off to them because they get to speak to one and engage in an activity with one that shows what is done in that field on a day-to-day basis,” Prescod said.

As part of the course, students take the same math courses together, are assigned a peer mentor who is in a STEM field and have access to a tutoring center that provides free math tutoring. They also have the option to stay in a living and learning community where all students live together in hopes that the peer support will increase their probability to stay in STEM.

“It’s more than just a career development course,” she said. “Students learn a lot about themselves, about their likes and dislikes, and their abilities — things they never even thought about before entering into the course.”

After taking the course, students who were initially interested in STEM but had not declared a major were 15 times more likely to choose a STEM major and remain in it, Prescod said. STEM majors — those who had more of an idea of what they wanted to do — were 17 times more likely to stay in their major. Overall, the researchers found that providing STEM-focused career planning to first-year students can increase first-to-second year STEM retention and decrease negative career thoughts.

“These results are significant and very important to our research,” Prescod said. “This course is giving students a huge opportunity to get more information on STEM fields and what it would be like to work in STEM, along with learning more about themselves,” she said.

The study, which is part of a larger research project established in 2012 that is funded by a $1.8 million National Science Foundation grant, will be published in Career Development Quarterly and demonstrates the importance of career development intervention in STEM initiatives.

“When we say ‘STEM crisis,’ it is a real crisis,” Prescod said. “We look at the U.S. as this dominant force when it comes to the global economy and that will be at risk if we don’t have students who are graduating in STEM majors and going into STEM careers. That puts us at risk when it comes to being the leaders in innovation and technology, which is huge.”

“If we can figure out what works when it comes to these STEM programs and initiatives, hopefully, we can see the numbers of students graduating in a STEM area really increase.”

By Jessica Buterbaugh (September 2016)