The United States consistently has too few science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) professionals to support the present and future American high-tech economy. The Science Education Department (SED) of the Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian has conducted a set of large studies, collectively named “Persistence in STEM”, to identify the factors affecting students’ interest in science and related fields. Based on survey responses from thousands of students in many colleges and universities across the United States, the “Persistence in STEM” studies investigate both what encourages and discourages potential STEM majors and professionals.
Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/SAO; Optical: Adam Block/Mount Lemmon SkyCenter/University of Arizona
Improving Science Education for All
Despite evidence for widespread interest in STEM among children across gender and race, the demographics of STEM do not reflect the population as a whole. White women and people of color are under-represented, which is an obstacle to the national STEM enterprise reaching its full potential.
“Persistence in STEM” is designed to look at the factors that reinforce or sabotage students’ interest in STEM. Like the similar “Factors Influencing College Success in STEM” studies, also conducted by CfA’s SED, “Persistence in STEM” involved thousands of students in a wide variety of colleges and universities. However, by surveying students in first-year university English composition classes, the “Persistence” studies capture students with a wide range of career interests, including both STEM and non-STEM fields. This study design makes it possible to identify factors that have influenced students toward or away from STEM careers.
The first of the studies, titled “Persistence Research in Science and Engineering” (PRiSE), looked particularly at women’s interest in STEM and the obstacles faced by female students. Meanwhile, the “Outreach Programs and Science Career Intentions” (OPSCI) study examined how university-organized outreach experiences influence students’ STEM interests. The latest study, “How Pre-College Informal Activities Influence Female Participation in STEM Careers,” focuses on the effects of out-of-school and informal STEM experiences. These studies were funded by grants from the National Science Foundation.