Survey: Educators aren’t discussing STEM careers with students

By Meris Stansbury, Associate Editor
February 25th, 2010

Students say they aren't getting the STEM guidance they need.

Teachers say they don't have the time or the resources to discuss STEM career options with their students.

In a recent survey, a majority of students said that while their science and math teachers seem knowledgeable and keep class interesting, they aren’t teaching about science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) career options. High school students also said they don’t believe STEM knowledge is integral to getting a good job, which doesn’t bode well for leaders counting on STEM education to keep the nation at the forefront of the global economy.

Spurred by the Obama administration’s “Educate to Innovate” campaign—a nationwide effort by U.S. companies, foundations, government agencies, and nonprofit organizations to help move America to the top of the pack in math and science education—the American Society for Quality (ASQ) commissioned market research firm Harris Interactive to conduct an online survey to uncover how well teachers transfer their knowledge and passion for science and math to their students and inspire them to pursue STEM careers.

The survey, conducted in December, asked more than a thousand students in grades 3-12 to provide a scaled report card (with grades ranging from A-F) on their science teachers’ classroom skills and activities.

Although 85 percent of students said their teachers deserve at least a “B” when it comes to knowledge about science topics (55 percent of students gave their teachers an “A”), 63 percent of high school students said their teachers are not doing a good job of talking to them about engineering careers (“C” or lower), and 42 percent of high school students said their teachers don’t ably demonstrate how science can be used in a career (“C” or lower).

Also, students in grades 7-12 are less likely than third through sixth graders to believe a person needs to be skilled science and math to get a good paying job (66 percent vs. 80 percent).

“We believe that as students get older and begin to diversify their studies and become more aware of the wide range of available career opportunities, they start to think that math and science aren’t necessarily critical to their job hunt,” said Maurice Ghysels, chair of ASQ’s Education Advisory Council.

“In some cases, a contributing factor is that some teachers aren’t doing all they can to connect the dots between the math [and] science work that students are doing on a daily basis and how it relates to the real world and their future careers.”

Why the disconnect?

Teachers who make math and science interesting but fail to discuss STEM career options might feel limited by the time constraints placed on them.

“Good teachers in many cases are doing their best to cover a wide range of topics and required curriculum in science classes, but because of time and budget constraints, career discussions are often left out,” said Ghysels. “So, any support that teachers can receive from parents and local community members [in terms of] volunteer career speakers and programs is really valued.”

One former math teacher said teachers often don’t have time to discuss STEM career options because they’re too busy having to teach to high-stakes tests.

“A teacher’s primary responsibility is instruction that will provide all students with the math skills necessary to demonstrate proficiency on state-mandated assessments or exit exams,” said Judy Brown, math program manager for Sylvan Learning.

“Unfortunately, many high school students come into classes without essential prerequisite skills. This is particularly difficult in the math classroom, because higher-level skills are built on a foundation of basic skills. Finding additional time to incorporate STEM careers into high school math classrooms may not become a priority until state-mandated assessments include items assessing this topic.”