A 2006 study of young adolescents' career expectations, led by researchers at the University of Virginia, investigated whether 13-year-olds with an expectation for a science-related career obtained science degrees at higher rates than 13-year-olds without this expectation. They do - or at least they did - in a national sample of youth studied during the years 1988 through 2000, and published in 2006.
The study factored in differences in academic achievement, academic characteristics, and demographics, and followed young people living in the U.S. over time. Young people were asked to select one employment option from a list (only one!) and their career expectations were sorted into two groups -- science-related and non-science.
The science-related careers were further separated into "life" sciences and "physical/engineering" sciences. The young people who expected careers at age 30 in the sciences were nearly twice as likely to graduate with a life science college degree, and more than three times as likely to earn a physical/engineering science degree as young people who did not see themselves in science careers. While academic achievement in eighth grade math had a role in predicting later careers in physical/engineering science degrees, math scores were not a predictor for careers in the life sciences!
But expectation dominated, even in the physical sciences. "An average mathematics achiever with a science-related career expectation had a higher probability of earning a baccalaureate degree in the physical sciences or engineering than a high mathematics achiever with a non-science career expectation." In other words, academics matter but they were not the strongest predictor for future engineers.
While initiatives to encourage youth pursuit of science careers may focus attention on eighth grade algebra, these data support that there is more to a future than a good grade. We knew this, of course, but it sure helps make the case for a theory of change when data support what we know.
How can we use this knowledge as we partner with formal educators? This is an important question for our work. 4-H is asking the "expectation question" of youth in a national study in order to compare 4-H youth to youth who are not participating in 4-H. Clearly, how we plan and design nonformal science programs matters, and the stakes are very high.