PhotoWith summer quickly coming to an end, many young people in the U.S. will be getting ready to go to school. But what fields will these young people be pursuing in hopes of a future career? If recent trends continue, it’s likely that it won’t be in math or science.

The U.S. has been ranked fairly low compared to other nations in terms of students who pursue STEM careers – those which deal with science, technology, engineering, and math. But a new study conducted at The University of Texas at San Antonio (USTA) has acknowledged several factors that could change this.

“This is a critical issue in our economy right now. We have a crippling deficit of participants in the STEM field, and if we can encourage our students to pursue this path, we’ll be on our way to eradicating it,” said Huy Le, associate professor at UTSA.

Comfort and success

Le and his colleagues conducted a study that followed participants from the time they were in eighth grade to 6-9 years after they applied to college. Each subject was psychologically evaluated to see how well they would fit into a STEM career.

The researchers found that participants tended to gravitate to fields where they thought they would be comfortable and successful, so identifying and encouraging young people who excelled in a STEM field, or enjoyed studying it, made it much more likely that they would choose it later on.

“People seek out the environment that fits their personal characteristics. If they work in an arena that suits them, they’ll be happy and successful. With these predictors, we can identify students with potential for obtaining a STEM degree nearly a decade before they pursue it,” said Le.

Early encouragement

Le also found that men and women were equally able to excel in STEM fields, despite statistics showing that women were underrepresented in these types of careers. This could be attributed, he says, to the different societal pressures placed on each gender.

Additionally, the researchers say that having a high cognitive ability that suits a person for a STEM field can sometimes be channeled into other interests. For example, someone who has superior verbal abilities may choose a profession in business over a STEM field because the former offers them more opportunities.

In order to help encourage the growth of STEM professions, the researchers say that teachers, mentors, and counselors should inform young people about the opportunities available in STEM fields. Doing so early, they say, could influence interests for years to come.

The full study has been published in the Journal of Vocational Behavior.

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