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STEM Relevance, Interest & Parent Power

March 23, 2012

How can we drive more high school and college students to take more STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) classes, find the classes interesting, and excel in them?

That’s the question that Judith Harackiewicz, social psychologist from the University of Wisconsin Madison, tried to answer in her presentation at MSU March 21st on “Promoting Interest & Performance in STEM Fields: The Importance of Utility Value.”   Here are my layperson’s/parental takeaways from her presentation:

  • “Utility value” (perceived relevance) -> interest -> higher performance
  • A teacher or professor who tells students why a topic is relevant is only effective if the kids are already interested and performing well in the class.  Perhaps the low achievers become scared when told that the subject that they can’t grasp is important for their lives.
  • If a teacher or professor instead asks the students to write a short (2-3 sentence) essay on how they think a topic/skill would be relevant to themselves or to other students either now or later in life, that action improves both the perceived utility (relevance) and the interest levels of even the low achievers.
  • Teachers should do these essays 2-4 times per semester to get this result.
  • But that doesn’t change the number of students who take STEM classes, which, according to the National Science Foundation, is very low: only 59% of high school students take chemistry, 29% take physics, and 12% calculus.   So, to test if those numbers could be changed, they tried sending two brochures and a link to a website on course relevance to parents of 10th and 11th graders.
  • Parents:  we need to talk with (not at) our kids about how classes they might take are relevant to their current world or their future careers.  Research shows that we parents are the biggest influence on our kids’ school and career choices.
  • When the parents are equipped with talking points about course relevance and they engage their kids in discussions, the number of STEM classes elected in 11th & 12th grade increases by more than 1 semester!


Also, if you want your child to stand out on college applications, make sure he or she is one of the 12% that take calculus and the 29% that take physics!


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