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'Job Shadowing' Can Get Students More Interested in STEM Careers

The "STEM pipeline" is leaking. But according to a new study published today, there's a fairly straightforward way to patch it up: Expose high school students to the actual workplaces where science, technology, engineering and math are done.

The concept is called "job shadowing," in which students visit work sites and observe the activities of people employed in careers they might choose to pursue. The idea is that once kids are exposed to these workplaces and are able to get a concrete idea of the day-to-day activities of STEM professionals, they can become motivated to pursue STEM careers themselves, according to a new paper, "Vocational Anticipatory Socialization of Adolescents: Messages, Sources, and Frameworks that Influence Interest in STEM Careers," published today in the National Communication Association's Journal of Applied Communication Research.

At present, that type of exposure just isn't happening, especially for students who are from lower socioeconomic backgrounds and whose families are not employed in STEM fields. So many students have little idea what a career in a STEM discipline might entail.

"Students don't learn enough about STEM careers unless their parents work in STEM areas, and the messages they receive from parents, teachers and counselors frequently fail to address how students think about and evaluate potential career paths," said lead researcher Karen K. Myers, an associate professor of communication at the University of California, Santa Barbara, in a statement released to coincide with the paper. "Once students get a detailed picture of what it's like to work in one of these jobs, it can motivate them to overcome difficult obstacles and adopt a STEM job as a goal."

The paper was based on a study of 37 focus groups involving 229 California high school students.

According to the report: "[C]areer detail messages were difficult for students to obtain. Even students from high socioeconomic backgrounds whose parents were college educated in non-STEM fields indicated that they depended on their connections with people outside of their immediate family to provide instrumental information about STEM careers. Students with insular family networks without a STEM career insider, or students from low socioeconomic communities would likely have less access to information that could generate their interest in STEM careers."

The prescriptions outlined by the report's authors included concerted outreach efforts by STEM organizations: "Messages from career insiders who can contextualize the importance of science and math courses, and who emphasize hard work over ability, can play a key role in alleviating the leaking STEM pipeline," according to the report. "Organizations within STEM fields ... should work with high schools to create job-shadow opportunities that specifically provide exposure to job tasks and environments."

The complete paper is freely available online via the Journal of Applied Communication Research.

About the Author

David Nagel is the executive producer for 1105 Media's online K-12 and higher education publications and electronic newsletters. He can be reached at dnagel@1105media.com. He can now be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/THEJournalDave (K-12) or http://twitter.com/CampusTechDave (higher education). You can also connect with him on LinkedIn at http://www.linkedin.com/profile/view?id=10390192.

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