Interest in STEM is contagious among students

New Delhi: As the demand for highly skilled workers in STEM increases, educators and employers have been pressured to find ways to increase the size of the applicant pool and make it more diverse.

It’s widely accepted that a student’s interest in pursuing STEM-related careers – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – is affected by gender, prior academic achievement and family support for science and mathematics.

In a study recently published in Science Advances, researchers show that students are heavily influence by their peers’ interest in STEM as well.
“We were surprised by the consistency and magnitude of the results,” said Allison Godwin, an assistant professor of engineering education at Purdue University who worked on the study.

“Our findings indicate that experiencing even one science course in which students perceive a quorum of interest among their peers can have a large and significant effect on their career choices.”

Humans have been found to “catch” the emotions of others – a concept known as emotional contagion. Although it’s appeared in psychology, sociology and history, it hasn’t been widely applied to classroom contexts. This could be important because research points to adolescents being more susceptible to peer influence.

The results provide insight into what can be done in high school science classes to promote interest among all students and potentially bring greater numbers of them into STEM careers. They stress the importance of motivation, which is often disregarded in STEM education research in favor of achievement and conceptual outcomes.

“Creating motivating classroom environments has implications for both cognitive and attitudinal outcomes, including how students engage in learning and what they aspire to be in the future,” Godwin said.
Given the national push to attract more individuals to STEM careers, understanding the types of environments that facilitate recruitment and persistence is critical.

“More research on how these environments are created within active learning classrooms is needed,” Godwin said. “The notion of creating interest quorums is a powerful one to further scientific understanding.”