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Four Reasons Why Students Stick to STEM

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What leads someone to pursue STEM—science, technology, engineering, or math—in college or beyond? A recent study by Museum educators points to four principles distilled from interviews with alumni of the Museum’s Lang Science Program, an intense seven-year track of immersion in extracurricular science.

 

Large group of students pose in front of the elephant specimens on display in the Akeley Hall of African Mammals.
The 2017 class photo of participants and educators in the Museum’s Lang Science Program, an intense seven-year immersive science program, in Akeley Hall of African Mammals.
C. Chesek/©AMNH

The research team, which includes the Museum’s Youth Programs Manager Brian Levine and Director of Youth Learning Preeti Gupta, followed up with 66 alumni of the program, which was founded in 2000 with a grant from the Eugene M. Lang Foundation. Researchers found that 83.2 percent of the group engaged in a STEM major in college and 63.1 percent in a STEM career. The majority of each group were students who are historically underrepresented in STEM fields, including women and members of racial and ethnic minority groups.

While Lang Science Program participants are already motivated to pursue science, through interviews with 21 Lang alumni, the research team discovered there were four common ingredients that fueled their perseverance in STEM, which can be replicated across other programs.

 

Four students examine antler specimens and record their findings.
Lang Science Program participants work closely with Museum collections to investigate research questions.
M. Shanley/© AMNH

First, the students had multiple chances to become practitioners of science by conducting lab investigations and field work, using Museum collections to investigate research questions, and presenting their work. Working with scientists and graduate students also helped students gain confidence in their training. Said one alumna, now a biochemistry major: “When we presented our research, there were actual scientists and they were respectful, actually asking me really hard questions, and they weren’t treating me like a kid, which I really liked.”

 

Instructor points to a Museum display and talks to a group of students.
Lang Science Program participants reported that they developed a shared identity around their interest in science.
M. Shanley/© AMNH

Second, a multi-year science program offered participants a “shared science identity”—the feeling of belonging to a group bound by a common interest in science. That, in turn, helped the students remain in the program and gain confidence in a future in science as well. Said a Lang alumnus who is a biochemistry and molecular biology major, “The Museum was sort of my outlet to be as nerdy as possible and be around a group of students who had the same interests. I guess it enabled me to maintain my interest in science. So, I think it was really important in shaping the path I took to college.”

 

A group of students sit in chairs grouped in a semi-circle around their instructor and raise their hands in response to a question.
Through the Lang Science Program, students gain mentors who model careers in science.
M. Shanley/© AMNH

Third, the students had the opportunity to build their own social networks in science—not just with peers, but with mentors who helped identify trajectories to follow in high school and beyond, and who also served as role models for careers in science.

Finally, the researchers found that the experience of the Lang program gave students a level of confidence in their pursuits that contributed to their perseverance in STEM in college and beyond.

“Findings from this study are encouraging,” said study co-author Gupta, who leads youth learning programs at the Museum. “What we’re learning from this study will allow us to consider refinements in our youth programs at the Museum, and to deepen our lines of research and ask new questions.”