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Great expectations are good predictors of science careers

Pamela-Nippolt.jpgWhen young people are asked, "What kind of work do you expect to be doing when you are 30 years old?", it turns out that their responses are quite accurate predictions of their college majors.

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 stem.jpgachiever 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.

-- Pamela Larson Nippolt, state faculty and program leader, program evaluation

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  1. Pam, this is a very insightful post and quite relevant to a lot of our work in youth development. I have a quick question on the 2006 study you mentioned and maybe other related literature. Did they ask those who selected science as an employment option as to WHY they wanted such a career? I think that having more information as to what (other than grades, demographics, etc), influences youth's choices for a science career and knowing some of the reasons why they have such expectations would inform our work and especially help us make the case for a theory of change. Great post!

  2. Josey - No, the 2006 study that I referenced did not ask "why?" but I am learning a great deal from the work coming out of the LIFE Center at Stanford by Brigid Barron about "why" from the young person's perspective. She is gathering stories about youth who get involved in technology across formal, informal, nonformal settings and is suggesting a learning ecology framework for understanding that interest is an integral part of human development - there is an ecology that surrounds and supports a young person's interest (learning trajectory) in science, technology, engineering or math. Here is a link that you may find relevant to your point:

  3. Thanks for the reply and the great resource Pam!! I used the ecology of human development theory for my Master's thesis and I truly stand behind the idea that there is an ecology which surrounds and supports the youth, but also tells a larger story about who the youth are and how we can better serve them and work with them.