Idaho faces hurdles getting math, science students

Parents, students lack understanding of STEM careers, study finds.

broberts@idahostatesman.comSeptember 11, 2013 

Idaho students say they want to be doctors, biologists and nurses. But they shy away from studying math and science.

Their parents, often uncertain about their own math and science abilities, may not be providing enough support for students mulling careers in science, technology, engineering and math.

Moreover, even if students and parents are intrigued by what is termed STEM education, many don’t know how to negotiate the financial forms that can get students money for college.

Idaho’s troubling scenario for producing more technology-savvy students ready to staff science and math jobs comes from three years of research at the University of Idaho looking at the state’s view of science and math education.

The study, which will go on for another two years, was funded with a $1.2 million grant from the Micron Foundation.

It is the only statewide research in the country into how cultural and societal values affect STEM education, said Melinda Hamilton, director of STEM education at U of I.

“The problem is that our students are not aware of the preparation required or the careers and education opportunities that are out there for STEM,” Hamilton said at a meeting of educators and business people in Boise Tuesday morning.

Among 10th-graders, Hamilton discovered:

• 29 percent don’t know how to apply to college.

• 38 percent don’t think they get enough career counseling.

• 58 percent don’t know what classes to take to be successful in college.

• 71 percent have no idea how to apply for financial aid, which typically means filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form.

STEM education helps prepare for the jobs of the future. Those jobs could lead to higher paychecks in a state that typically lands at the bottom of the list when it comes to paying its workers.

Hamilton’s research shows that 54 percent of fourth-graders say they don’t want to have a job that uses a lot of math and science when they are an adult. By 10th grade, that number rises to more than 70 percent.

“This is really obvious with girls,” Hamilton said. “The girls drop off so drastically that (it) drives the trend.”

Hamilton’s research shows Idaho has a job to do showing more kids the benefits of STEM education.

“I think that is something we can get our hands around,” said Rod Gramer, president and CEO of Idaho Business for Education, a statewide group of business leaders pushing for improved schools in Idaho.

More career counseling in secondary schools would make a difference, he said. While many educators say those counselors are overworked, Gramer said as a state “we can invest in it. I am not ready to surrender on the idea that there is nothing we can do about that.”

Bill Roberts: 377-6408, Twitter: @IDS_BillRoberts

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