Idaho students are scared of science and math

New U of I research shows Idaho must do more to help students pursue degrees that lead to math and science careers.

broberts@idahostatesman.comOctober 7, 2013 


    Idaho public colleges and universities beat the State Board of Education’s goal for the number of students graduating with STEM degrees by five years in 2012.

    Schools produced 2,251 degrees in STEM fields. The Idaho education board set a goal of 2,177 for 2017.

    “Great,” says Don Soltman, the board president. But he isn’t resting there. The board meets Oct. 16 to review its long-range plans for STEM. “In this case (the goal for degrees) will probably be moved upwards,” he said. Since 2007, Idaho colleges and universities have produced 10,900 STEM graduates, about 19 percent of total degrees awarded.

    A Georgetown University report indicates that more than a third of the STEM jobs in Idaho will be in computer operations by 2018. Twelve percent of all jobs requiring a master’s and 11 percent of jobs requiring a doctorate are expected to be in STEM fields by then.

    The Boise School District, which followed its students from their 2007 and 2008 graduating classes, reports the largest numbers of college degrees awarded to its students four to five years later are in STEM fields.

    Of the 591 college degrees awarded so far, 29 percent are in STEM fields. The next highest category is business, at nearly 20 percent.

    District officials credit Boise’s advanced placement program in sciences and math with making a difference.

    It’s still not known what happens to those graduates in the workplace. They aren’t tracked that far. The Idaho Department of Labor is working with state educators to change that, but that program is not expected to be ready before 2016. Nor is it known how many STEM graduates stay in Idaho and how many leave.

    “I think we are doing fairly well,” Soltman says. “I don’t think it is nearly enough to meet demand.”

    Bill Roberts

It’s catapult day for students in Cindy Dorian’s third-grade classroom.

Students stretch out on the floor, tape measures laid out before them, as they experiment with how far small catapults can hurl tiny corks. Taylor Fulgham, 8, is intense as she and two partners measure where a cork lands after the catapult is elevated from 10 degrees to 40 degrees.

“It’s fun to measure and not get hit with stuff,” Fulgham says.

The third-grader attends Spalding STEM Academy, a Meridian School District elementary school that decided to make science, technology, engineering and math — STEM — the focus of its curriculum beginning this year.

As her students work, Dorian reminds them that scientists perform experiments similar to the ones they are conducting. Learning the effects of a catapult’s height on the distance it will fling a cork is akin to what engineers do, she says.

Before the last bell rings for the day, Dorian plans to have her students use math skills to chart the distance the corks flew and use language skills to write up their findings.

“It’s a full-day event,” she says.

It’s all aimed at putting math and science into the real world in hopes it fires her students’ imaginations.

Her lessons are part of Spalding’s attempt to interest more kids in STEM as demand for workers with those skills is on a seemingly endless upward trajectory among businesses in Idaho and elsewhere.


Recent University of Idaho research indicates that getting and holding the interest of students in STEM is a complicated, nuanced undertaking. It is influenced by teachers, school counselors, parents, gender, career perceptions and locale.

“I think there is a disconnect in the understanding of what the STEM potential careers and education opportunities are,” says Melinda Hamilton, director of STEM Education Initiatives at the U of I. “I don’t think we’ve made that clear.”

Hamilton is principal researcher in a five-year, statewide study of STEM. The study, now in its third year, is being paid for with $1.2 million from the Micron Foundation in Boise. Hamilton says the U of I’s work is the only statewide research into attitudes and cultures surrounding STEM anywhere in the country.

The foundation, the philanthropic arm of Micron Technology Inc., wants to better understand how students react to STEM education so Idaho can learn how to bring more students into STEM or hold those already there.

“We want to make sure the pipeline is there so we can continue to innovate,” says Dee Mooney, the foundation’s executive director.

Business interest in STEM is clear. “Our stake is that we are moving toward a more technologically advanced society,” says Rod Gramer, president and CEO of Idaho Business for Education, an organization of 85 corporate leaders backing education reform. Without a workforce better trained in science and math, “we’re not going to have the high-paying jobs,” Gramer says.


Student interest in math and science — and careers that include those subjects — is never higher than in fourth grade, the U of I research shows.

By 10th grade, the share of students who like math and science falls 25 percentage points. Interest in careers in those fields drops 21 percentage points for math and 18 percentage points for science. The decline is especially sharp among girls.

“Some of it is attributable to peer pressure,” Hamilton says. When researchers asked girls about math and science, many who said they were interested also said they didn’t think their friends were.

“They are less likely to admit to their peers that they are interested in science and math,” Hamilton says. “That may lead them down a path not to go into it.”

At the same time, many students seem not to grasp the role of science and math in certain careers. They told U of I researchers that they wanted to be engineers, doctors, nurses and biologists, but more than half said they didn’t want a career that required a lot of math and science.

Where they live matters, too. Rural students want hands-on careers more than their urban counterparts do, Hamilton says, and “they don’t equate that ‘get-out-there-and-work-with-my-hands’ with STEM.”

Children are also influenced by parents’ ability to talk with their kids about math and science or to help them with homework. Parents told researchers they care about math and science but often don’t feel comfortable about their own skills.

“Maybe there is uncertainty about how to interest their kids or how to help their kids,” Hamilton says. (See related story "Putting Idaho parents in the STEM equation")


“We need to get with kids earlier and help them with career information earlier,” says Britt Ide, a lawyer and engineer who is president of Ide Law and Strategy, a Boise consulting firm.

Elementary school isn’t too soon. Ide, who has a daughter in fourth grade, says “it’s important at her age to do fun things with math.”

Counselors in middle and junior high schools should be showing students options and pitching STEM careers, Gramer says.

“We have to do a better job of really helping kids assess their strengths and align that with possible careers (they) can pursue,” he says. “Right now that just isn’t going on.”

Many students agree. Thirty-eight percent of 10th graders surveyed by U of I say they don’t think they get enough career counseling.

That might be because school counselors are overworked. Counselors typically have heavy caseloads, says Kirsten LaPaglia, a U of I researcher working on the STEM project in the Lewiston area.

Counselors tell LaPaglia they see students only about twice a semester, usually for behavior or other problems.

“The step that is missing: Students getting advice when they are not in trouble yet,” she says.

Robbie Cupps sees the problem up close. A counselor at Boise’s Capital High School, Cupps focuses on college and career counseling — a job different from that of many of her peers across the state. But her responsibilities encompass all 1,400 sophomores, juniors and seniors at Capital. She strives for one-on-one time with all of the approximately 450 seniors each year, but doesn’t always make it.

Cupps makes classroom presentations and has helped bring representatives of STEM-related businesses to talk to students about career opportunities. “We are really fortunate we do have this position,” she says.

“When we are with students we have them do interest inventories,” she says.

Cupps doesn’t try to sell STEM, but if a student mentions interest in science and math, she’ll say, “Have you considered engineering or the health sciences?”

Many of her students steer away from those jobs or college majors, affirming the U of I research that by 10th grade interest has slumped.

“A lot of kids believe you have to be really, really good at it to go into it,” Cupps says. “When you start talking about math and science areas, that is really scary to a lot of kids.”


The U of I researchers are trying to take the intimidation out of math and science.

LaPaglia has launched a program she hopes will bring insight on how to overcome student resistance. She brought high school students together to look at troublesome highway intersections and propose solutions. They measured traffic speeds, counted cars and talked to transportation experts. They were wading into STEM from the real world, not a worksheet assignment.

“They were fully engaged in reading engineering plans about their own communities,” LaPaglia says.

Their solution to the highway intersection problems? “A lot of my students were excited about roundabouts,” she said.

In another project, LaPaglia arranged for students to conduct video interviews with people working in STEM fields about their jobs and what education the jobs required. Over the next several weeks, LaPaglia hopes to post the videos online and tie them to geographic areas, so Lewiston students wanting to know about people working in STEM careers can focus on their community. If the program spreads, students in other regions of the state could dial in people in STEM careers in their towns or cities.

“(That) brings home the point they are not just somewhere in the world.” LaPaglia says. “They are right in my community.”

Researchers also worked with Hispanic children and their parents in a project in Jerome that brought together Head Start teachers and students ages 3 to 5 to explore science concepts. To learn about germs, students looked at their hands under a black light after getting their hands dirty and again after using antibacterial products to see the difference, Hamilton says. “They talked about the science of germs in terms that a 3- to 5-year-old could understand,” she says. Parents were invited to see what their children learned.

Hamilton is analyzing the data from the Jerome project. “The overall feeling is that it was a tremendous success,” she says. “The parents had positive things to say.”

Whether those few days helped guide children toward math and science may not be known for years, when those students reach 7th or 8th grade. That’s when interest in STEM typically begins to fade.


The U of I’s research hasn’t yet reached much of the Idaho business community, says Gramer, the Idaho Business for Education CEO. The research was outside the scope of Gov. Butch Otter’s Task Force for Improving Education, which has offered 20 school-reform recommendations, including spending nearly $350 million to restore lost revenue to school districts and increase teacher pay.

About 20 business people and educators attended a presentation on U of I’s research last month in Boise. Gramer plans to talk to his own board of directors about it. “We are really, in my view, on the cusp of talking about this,” he says. But right now, Idaho Business for Education is still preoccupied with other initiatives, such as the Idaho Core Standards.

“There are clearly kids who are interested in science and math, but they don’t see a clear path for how to use it in life,” he says.


Bill Roberts: 377-6408, Twitter: @IDS_BillRoberts

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