College major choice in STEM: revisiting confidence and demographic factors.

Author:Moakler, Martin W.
Position:Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics

Using national freshman survey data, the authors examined confidence and background variables (e.g., gender, minority status, parental occupation) as predictors of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) major choice. Logistic regression analyses revealed that students were more likely to choose STEM majors if they had strong confidence in mathematics and academic areas and had parents with STEM occupations. Although female students were unlikely to choose a STEM major, African American and Latina/o students were equally as likely to choose a STEM major as were White or Asian American students. Findings suggest that students' confidence level in their academic and mathematics abilities makes a significant difference in their initial STEM major choice. Study findings could assist educators, counselors, and policy makers in their efforts to promote student choice of STEM-related majors and careers.

A continuing challenge for the United States is to produce America's future scientists and engineers. Although the nation is becoming more dependent on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) graduates to support its technology-based economy, fewer American college-bound students are entering STEM fields of study in higher education (National Science Board [NSB], 2005). Moreover, the percentage of high school students who express interest in becoming a scientist or engineer has sharply dropped, which may lead to fewer than 2% of U.S. high school graduates eventually receiving STEM degrees from 4-year colleges and universities (National Academy of Sciences [NAS], 2007). The result is a diminishing pool of STEM graduates with the expertise necessary to promote international economic and technological advancement. In the context of national policy analysis, the General Accounting Office (GAO; 2005) called for recruiting U.S. citizens to STEM majors to secure STEM human capital for the U.S. labor pool.

With warnings from the NSB (2005) and the GAO (2005) concerning the strategic crisis in domestic STEM education, there has been a heightened research interest in STEM career and major choice areas. Much of the educational research concerned with STEM tends to focus on STEM career aspiration, school career guidance, strategies to stimulate STEM interest prior to college, or college persistence and degree completion in STEM fields (Atkin, Green, & McLaughlin, 2002; Fouad, 2007; Herrara & Hurtado, 2011). Yet, little research examines matriculating undergraduate students choice of a STEM major.

Demographic issues, such as gender and race, have also been heavily examined in STEM-related studies (Chavez, 2001; Fouad, 1995, 2007; Francis, 2000; Herrara & Hurtado, 2011; Lee, 1998, 2002; Perrone, Sedlacek, & Alexander, 2001; Sax, 1994). Likewise, student ability and confidence in math and science and their effect on STEM career interest development have been reported in many studies, especially with respect to women and minorities (Fouad, 2007; Hackett & Betz, 1989; Luzzo, Harper, Albert, Bibby, & Martinelli, 1999). Nevertheless, a gap exists in the literature on female and minority student confidence in mathematics and academic abilities and how such confidence (or lack thereof) relates to STEM major choice. Therefore, this study investigated confidence and demographic factors associated with the choice of a STEM major, focusing on U.S. citizen, full-time students matriculating into 4-year colleges and universities. Specifically, we addressed the following questions:

  1. How do background factors such as gender, minority status, parental socioeconomic status (SES), parents with STEM occupations, and academic preparation affect a STEM major choice?

  2. How does academic confidence affect a STEM major choice?

  3. How does mathematics confidence affect a STEM major choice?

STEM Workforce Advancement

To alleviate U.S. STEM graduate shortages, the GAO (2005) presented recruitment strategies related to (a) international students, (b) women, and (c) minorities. According to the GAO, international students earn about one third of the 'STEM master's and doctoral degrees in the United States and have been used to meet the shortage of the U.S. STEM labor pool.. The GAO, however, warned about the strategy of relying on international students to bolster the current STEM graduate short-ages. The NSB (2004) also noted that training and recruiting Foreign students is a short-term strategy that is predicted to fail because of visa restrictions and anticipated reverse brain drain of American-educated, foreign-born workers who can pursue employment globally. The NAS (2007) reported that 67% of engineering doctorates from *U.S. universities were granted to non-U.S. citizens, who were required to leave the United States after graduation because of visa restrictions. The current economic conditions in the United States exacerbate the reverse brain drain evident in the documented migration of U.S. STEM talent to the booming economies in India and China (Ahmed, 2010). The GAO recommended investing more in U.S. human capital and focusing on U.S. student recruitment into STEM disciplines, in particular by reaching out to female and minority students.

Women and minorities (e.g., African Americans, Latinas/os) have been. underrepresented in STEM disciplines and majors (GAO, 2005; NSB, 2004). Although African Americans and Latinas/os each make up approximately 12% of the total U.S. population, they receive less than 5% of the STEM bachelor's degrees and doctorates awarded, respectively (NAS, 2007). Numerous reports identify barriers that minorities face in their pursuit of an undergraduate degree. Only 32% of matriculated African Americans attain an undergraduate degree, and financial issues often lead to African American students dropping out (Perrone et al., 2001). Explanations for the academic underachievement of Latinas/os and their high dropout rate include cultural conflicts between Latino and school culture, a lack of quality bilingual education, a lack of motivation, and a cultural devaluation of education (Chavez, 2001). The lack of STEM career interest causes African American and Latina/o students to. exclude STEM disciplines from their course of study (Fouad, 1995). White and Asian American students are consistently well represented in STEM disciplines (GAO, 2005; Goyette & Xie, 1999; Herrara & Hurtado, 2011).

American women traditionally steer away from STEM disciplines (Betz & Hackett, 1981; Fouad, 2007; Lee, 1998; Seymore, 1992). Perrone et al. (2001) attributed this phenomenon to the lack of female role models or insufficient confidence about entering STEM fields. Hoffer et al. (2004) reported that 73% of the physical science and 83% of the engineering doctoral degrees were granted to men. Women hold only 24% of the STEM jobs, even though they make up 48% of the U.S. workforce (Blank, 2011). Research consistently shows that being a woman is a strong negative predictor for STEM-related issues (Betz & Hackett, 1981; Chavez, 2001; Fouad, 1995, 2007; Sax, 1994; Seymore, 1992). Researchers (Atkin et at., 2002; Fouad, 1995; Lee, 2002; Morgan, Isaac, & Sansone, 2001) have suggested that female representation in STEM careers is influenced by many factors: self-image, gender group identity, perceptions of career field professionals, perceived financial barriers, the influence of mentors, and the extent of interest in the career field.

Self-Confidence, Self-Efficacy, and Ability

Self-confidence is associated with students' attitudes, feelings, and perceptions concerning their academic abilities, whereas self-efficacy is concerned with performance capability, not current abilities (Lent, Brown, & Gore, 1997). Performance accomplishments (academic abilities) are the most influential source of self-efficacy information because they are based on personal mastery (Bandura, 1977). Academic performance has a strong effect on self-efficacy, which affects academic motivation, interest, and scholastic achievement ( Lent, Brown, & Hackett, 1994). Lent, Brown, and Larkin (1984) found that academic confidence was generally related to academic performance.

Self-confidence in mathematics ability, self-confidence in academic ability, composite SAT scores, and high school grade point average (GPA) consistently display strong relationships with academic self-efficacy, self-confidence, and research abilities (e.g., Bandura, 1997; Hackett & Betz, 1989; Herrara & Hurtado, 2011). Mathematics self-efficacy expectations were increased when students experienced success at solving math problems (Campbell & Hackett, 1986). Hackett and Betz (1989) found that academic self-confidence strengthens self-efficacy. Students with higher mathematics self-efficacy reported lower levels of math anxiety, higher levels of overall confidence, and a greater tendency to view math as being useful. They recommended strengthening mathematics self-efficacy by providing experiences that make available performance accomplishment, encouragement and support, and methods of mathematics anxiety management. Lent et al. (1997) noted that domain-specific mathematics self-efficacy predicts mathematics-related choice and performance criteria more efficiently than does global academic self-efficacy. Academic self-concept better predicts overall grade performance. Moreover, having high domain-specific and global self-efficacy has a great influence on academic major and career choices.. Little research exists concerning STEM major choice, especially the relationship between mathematics and academic confidence and the choice of pursuing STEM disciplines in the freshman year of college.

Some reports have related academic self-efficacy, self-confidence, and ability to STEM-related areas...

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