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BC Conference Looks at Motivating High Schoolers to Study, Work in Math, Science Fields

Chestnut Hill, Mass. (September 2011) – Researchers from across the country who work to engage more students in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) met over the weekend at Boston College to hear first-hand from high school students about what motivates them to pursue these high-demand fields.

Advancing Research on Youth Motivation in STEM, held Sept. 9-11, was organized by the Newton, Mass.-based Education Development Center, and focused on the findings of researchers in the National Science Foundation program Innovative Technology Experiences for Students and Teachers (ITEST).

The meeting coincided with a new STEM education study from Microsoft that found only two out of every 10 college students studying in STEM fields report they were “extremely well” prepared in high school for those fields. The study confirmed that good teaching and preparation are instrumental in maintaining students’ interest in STEM fields, according to the report from Microsoft and Harris Interactive.

BC Associate Professor of Education Michael Barnett, who has received funding through two ITEST grants, works with Boston high school and middle school students on a range of STEM education projects. He has used robotics, urban planning and ecology, and indoor vegetable gardening as ways to introduce and engage students in science topics and careers

A member of the conference organizing group, Barnett said the student presenters, including students from West Roxbury Education Complex and Brighton High School of the Boston Public Schools, provided invaluable insight to the meeting.

“One of the things that’s too rarely done is asking the kids what they think,” said Barnett, whose latest project involves helping students cultivate vegetables for sale in farmers markets in their own neighborhoods, which are often isolated from a supply of fresh produce.

ITEST was established by the NSF in response to fears that America cannot meet the current and projected demand for STEM professionals. The meeting at BC brought together ITEST youth participants and ITEST project researchers with leading researchers, psychologists, and sociologists to guide future research on youth motivation in STEM, with particular emphasis on youth from populations most underrepresented in the STEM workforce.

The Microsoft survey of college students found motivation to pursue STEM studies grows from the desire for a secure future. Among the 500 respondents, 68 percent said they want a good salary following college; 66 percent said potential employment is critical; and 68 percent said they find the subjects intellectually stimulating and challenging.

Barnett said the STEM projects that resonate most deeply with the students he works with are rooted in issues of social justice – such as the distance separating inner-city neighborhoods from markets selling fresh produce, or the restoration of vacant lots through community development.

“When you can use the tools of science to combat issues of social justice, that really captures the kids’ attention,” said Barnett. “From there you’re able to engage them in learning the science, math and technology skills we want all children to understand.”