Why Most Students Don’t Choose STEM Careers

Sally (not her real name) is typical of many secondary school students I’ve interviewed over the past 20 years. She had enrolled in senior level high school biology and chemistry courses but when asked if she was considering a science-related career after graduation, she responded with a laugh, “Why would I want to do that?” Sally’s pointed response illustrates a national dilemma: Most young Canadians are not choosing a career in a science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM) field. As the Spotlight on Science Learning reports, only about 27-percent of students are currently engaged in STEM-related post-secondary education and the percentage of applications for post-secondary education in these fields has actually decreased since 2001 precisely as the need for qualified personnel in STEM careers, especially in health services, has increased dramatically.

There are several, inter-related reasons why Sally and her peers are not likely to choose a career in STEM, despite the availability of good jobs in STEM outlined in the Spotlight report. One reason is the public presentation of science in the popular media as the choice of the socially awkward, nerdy types or cold, inhuman evil people bent on world domination—portrayals that are entertaining but the very antithesis of the aspirations of most high school students! Secondary school students, in particular, need more exposure and conversation with people enjoying their career in the STEM areas. Industry can play a lead role in the development of a more positive view of science as well, such as Amgen Canada’s example of putting some of their philanthropic effort into helping to improve the science literacy of Canadian youth. We need industry and every agency nation-wide involved in STEM to consider outreach as a priority opportunity for attracting the next generation to STEM careers; a good model for such outreach is Let’s Talk Science, a national non-profit organization that engages youth in science learning.

But the chronically low involvement in STEM careers in Canada can be traced to a more systemic issue. Young children in the K-3 grades typically list science as one of their favourite subjects. But Canadian participation in international testing reveals that, at the secondary school level, most Canadian students dislike science. What changed? In most cases, it’s the way science is taught. In elementary school science is usually hands-on and experiential while in secondary school the majority of STEM instruction involves students taking notes from carefully prepared PowerPoint presentations. Science for these students is the memorization of reams of facts with little or no perceived relevance to their lives. Given this tedious pedagogy, it is a tribute to the resilience of our youth that some actually still choose science careers!

We can change this situation. Teachers are not the issue: Canada has an excellent system of teacher education and one of the finest educational systems in the world. The issue is the large amount of often out-of-date content that comprises study in senior secondary school biology, chemistry, physics and Earth science. The sheer mass of information almost demands lecture-style presentations as teachers try to “cover” a curriculum that was designed in the late 1960s and has not changed appreciably since. We need a nation-wide review and redesign of this curriculum if Canada is to turn around our poor enrolments in STEM programmes past secondary school graduation. Our last full national level study of science education in our country concluded in 1984. We are overdue for a new study to broaden the benchmarks established in the Spotlight on Science Learning. Such a study will need support from STEM industry and then the inter-provincial will and cooperation to carry out the resulting recommendations. With such partnerships and determination, Canada should be able to encourage more of our youth to choose a STEM career and enable us to maintain our tradition of innovation and leadership in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

  • David

    When Einstein said “never memorize something that you can look up,” he was speaking prophetically. Students don’t need teachers spouting facts at the front of the classroom anymore. They have access to the world’s supply of information at their fingertips. We need to get with the times and start focusing on the skills that are actually required for scientific inquiry.