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STEM Jobs Aren’t Students’ First Choice. More Hands-On Experiences Could Help, Experts Say

Less than one-third of teens and young adults listed a role in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics fields as their first-choice career, even though a sizable majority of them are interested in STEM occupations, according to a new survey from Gallup and the Walton Family Foundation.

Lack of exposure to STEM concepts may be contributing to the disconnect between students’ interests and the career they say they most hope to pursue, according to the report based on a nationally representative survey of 2,006 12- to 26-year-olds conducted in September.

“The findings point to the fact that despite students’ interest in STEM, they’re not finding viable pathways to those careers, or something prevents them from pursuing those careers, and we need to understand what those barriers are and address them,” said Maud Abeel, a director for Jobs for the Future, a national nonprofit that develops programs and public policies focused on boosting students’ college and career readiness.

Jobs in STEM pay substantially more than those in other fields and are growing at a faster rate than all other occupations, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Recent technological advances—especially in the field of artificial intelligence—mean more organizations are in search of STEM-savvy employees.

As a result, educators and policymakers should bolster the pipeline of future STEM workers, according to the report published Dec. 5.

“By creating programs that allow students the opportunity to explore, understand, and apply core STEM concepts and to participate in hands-on learning, we can set youth up for successful careers in an industry that desperately needs them,” Stephanie Marken, a Gallup senior partner and executive director for education research at the polling firm, said in a press release about the report.

Schools, for the most part, are already providing a lot of opportunities for students to learn about STEM careers. The Walton/Gallup survey found that 82 percent of students said their school offered a variety of STEM classes, and 72 percent said they had opportunities to participate in STEM-related extracurricular activities. (The Walton Family Foundation provides support to Education Week for coverage of race and opportunity and other topics. Education Week retains sole editorial control over that coverage.)

Some school districts are expanding career and technical education programs, largely in popular STEM fields, such as coding. State and federal lawmakers are also supporting this work by providing funding for schools to expand work-based learning opportunities that provide students with hands-on exposure to STEM jobs, which experts say help spark career interests and help students see themselves in those roles.

However, there’s still a lot of work to be done. Less than half of the survey respondents said they’ve engaged in hands-on STEM learning activities, which helps students better engage with the content and retain information.

It’s not always easy for teachers to provide these hands-on experiences because there might be a lack of resources, and some teachers may feel ill-equipped to teach students about STEM concepts and careers, according to educators.

And while there’s been an increased focus on career exploration and readiness, not all schools provide those opportunities to their students, Abeel said.

One solution to getting more hands-on STEM learning to students is to cultivate partnerships with organizations that run after-school and other programs outside of school hours, she said.

“We are really focused currently on the out-of-school-time space, as one of the answers to getting more high-quality hands-on STEM to students,” Abeel said. “It’s so hard for schools to do it all. Schools are on the hook for reading and math, and now they’re on the hook for more robust, hands-on STEM, and that’s just a tall order.”

Many schools partnered with community groups during shutdowns early in the pandemic, and have continued to rely on them for programming outside of school hours as one strategy for helping students regain their academic footing following COVID closures.

Those partnerships, Abeel said, shouldn’t fade away when pandemic relief funds expire. Schools and outside groups should continue to find ways to partner with each other to ensure students are getting robust STEM learning in and out of school, she said.

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