A Danish research group has applied the psychology theory, identity work, to understand why many high school students avoid entering STEM disciplines in college, despite enjoying and excelling in those subjects. In the 2014 International Journal of Science Education article, “To Choose or Not to Choose Science: Constructions of Desirable Identities among Young People Considering a STEM Higher Education Programme,” Holmegaard et al. report that 13 of the 38 students they interviewed were “non-STEM choosers” because they saw STEM undergraduate education as an environment too restrictive for developing their identities in a number of ways. The students perceived that a STEM education would not provide the social experience they wanted for their personal development (p. 199). They wanted to interact with other students, and discuss and explore STEM topics. Students also wanted to learn science facts in the context of how they are relevant to everyday life and social issues, but perceived STEM education wouldn’t meet that expectation (p. 200).
The researchers went back a year later and interviewed 18 of the students who chose STEM programs to see whether their experience matched up with the perceptions of the non-choosers. The choosers found themselves in large lecture classes in which they learned STEM basics, without any application-based, group activities (p. 206). Many of them mentioned being forced to learn mathematics without being told its relevance for their future work (p. 207). Basically, the non-choosers had accurate expectations of STEM majors.
This study has given me a new perspective on students who love science, but reject STEM education. They are asking to be critical thinkers who engage in dialogue about social issues and potential science-based solutions. The students want to make creative contributions, rather than memorize and regurgitate facts. I agree with this statement by the authors: “The focus on identity, therefore, is not about spoiled and self-absorbed kids; it is about presenting oneself as a legitimate citizen in modern society” (p.209).
Aren’t these the types of students we want contributing to the future of our world? It seems we need a better balance of teaching the basics of STEM disciplines and giving students the autonomy to explore and apply the sciences in order to attract and retain STEM undergraduates. Small-scale programs with these characteristics have been funded over the past two decades, but a broader, more sustainable approach is needed. There is great potential here for academic librarians to collaborate with faculty to design curricula and environments that support critical exploration of STEM.
Photo attribution: World Citizen Flag, derivative work by Kizar, 2010. Some rights reserved.