Study Finds Parents are Key in Generating Teenagers' Long-Term Interest in STEM

Researchers at the University of Virginia, the University of Wisconsin and the University of Chicago have found a promising way to increase adolescents' interest in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) — their parents.

The study, which included parents of 10th and 11th graders, found that parents who conveyed the importance of math and science courses to their children in high school made a lasting impact on their career interest in STEM years down the road. The findings, published in the latest issue of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS) are the first to show that a motivational intervention with parents can have important long-term effects on a students’ STEM preparation and career pursuits.

While the US department of Education reports that STEM career opportunities continue to grow at a rapid rate, outpacing the growth of nearly all other occupations combined, not enough students in the United States are adequately prepared to enter these fields. In fact, current research indicates that many students do not enroll in courses that are prerequisites for STEM careers, a problem that starts in high school and persists into college. The findings from this study are the first to demonstrate that parents can play an important role in reversing this trend.

Chris Hulleman, a research associate professor at the University of Virginia's Curry School of Education and a lead researcher of the study, said the findings are exciting and tap into an underutilized resource. "Frequently, schools want to utilize parents in motivating and supporting students, but they're not sure what the best approach is," he said. "This study shows that parents can be an immensely useful resource to help high school students see the value of STEM-related courses."

As part of the study, a randomized control trial, parents in the intervention group were sent a brochure and given access to a website that detailed the usefulness of STEM courses like physics, calculus, and chemistry. These types of courses, although available as electives in most US high schools, are rarely part of the required coursework. Hulleman explained that both resources, the brochure and the website, gave parents suggestions on how they could talk to their children about the importance of STEM. "The materials focused on how to make STEM relatable to a teenager's daily life," Hulleman said. "For example, a teenager might be interested to know that both chemistry and physics are involved in building the cell phones they use daily."

Once the brochures and website information were sent out, the research team confirmed that more than two thirds of parents shared the information with their children in some manner, and that over 90% of parents accessed the website. Hulleman noted, however, that researchers know little about the types of conversation parents had with their children as a result of reviewing the resources. "We had no contact and provided no training, other than the brochures and website, to help parents talk to their kids about the importance of STEM courses in a specific way. We simply sent the information in hopes that it would spark a conversation between parents and their children."

Despite this unknown, the research team found impressive results. Hulleman said that the team's initial goal was to see if the intervention would simply increase student participation in STEM courses during high school. "An initial study confirmed that students whose parents were part of the intervention increased their enrollment in STEM courses by nearly one semester's worth on average," Hulleman added.

The research team then followed up with the same group of students five years down the road. They found a long-term positive effect on STEM achievement and perceptions. The students who participated in more STEM courses during high school as a result of their parent's encouragement ended up performing better on the math and science portions of the ACT, a college preparatory exam typically taken during a student's junior or senior year. Once these same students entered college, they took more STEM courses than the students whose parents had not received promotional materials during the initial study.  They were also more likely to have STEM career aspirations and were more likely to perceive STEM fields as useful and valuable. In short, the initial intervention had long-term positive effects.

The findings are a step in the right direction, according to Hulleman, who believes that the benefits of exposure to STEM courses in high school goes beyond producing qualified job applicants. "What will make us great as a nation is if we have curious students who want to learn and solve today's problems," he said. "If we have students like that, then we will be able to better tackle and solve issues like global warming or reducing energy consumption."

Hulleman also said the current intervention has great potential because it is simple and low cost. "What we're asking parents to do isn't time intensive or complex, but it may be potentially different than what they're currently doing. We're providing a resource that may reframe for parents how math and science can feel relevant for their children," he explained.

While the results are exciting, Hulleman also cautioned that more work needs to be done to determine if the approach would work in different communities across the country. The current study was conducted in an upper-middle class setting with mostly college-educated parents. "More research needs to be done to see if the approach can generalize to other communities." Hulleman said. Researchers are uncertain whether a similar approach might work in a school setting where fewer parents are college educated or perceive STEM careers as valuable.

Nevertheless, the study findings have researchers excited about the role parents can play in motivating adolescents to explore STEM courses and careers. When asked what advice he would give parents, Hulleman said parents should find out what inspires their child. "It's about finding out what interests your child and then connecting that interest to school and to what they're learning, so it becomes truly meaningful and they see real value in it."