Social cognitive factors, support, and engagement: early adolescents' math interests as precursors to choice of career.

Author:Rowan-Kenyon, Heather T.
Position:Special Section Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM - Report
 
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The authors examined the central hypothesis that students' early perceptions of support wlid sense of engagement in math classes and math activities strongly influence the broadening or narrowing of their math interest. The focus was on the first wave of qualitative data collected from 5th-, 7th-. and 9th-grade students during the 2007 2008 academic war as part of a longitudinal study. Findings indicate the importance of using group work and extrinsic motivation in middle school math classes lo broaden interest; peer classroom behavior was often a detractor of math interest.

Keywords: social learning and cognitive theory, math interest, middle school students

With the need for a stronger global workforce in the United States, careers and education in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) have been declared national priorities (National Science Board | NSB |, 2007). For older high school and college students, high math and science self-efficacy and positive outcome expectations have been shown to have a strong association with specific educational and career interests (Hackett & Bet/., 1981). These beliefs have a strong negative influence on some women's choices to pursue STEM-related majors and careers. By contrast, limited information is available on the role of other factors on early, pre-high school career interests. In fact, little is known about children's career development at all (McMahon & Watson, 2008; Porfeli, Hartung, & Vondracek, 2008). Few studies have examined the relationship of social cognitive factors and support to STEM choices with young people in late childhood and early adolescence. Furthermore, few studies have focused on the ways that math engagement, in addition to perceived support from peers, teachers, or parents, might influence the development of STEM interests, particularly mathematics interest, among middle and high school students.

In this article, we present qualitative findings from the 1st year of a 3-year study designed to characterize STEM interests, goals, and behaviors among girls and boys in late childhood and early adolescence. We focused on mathematics as the critical foundation and early filter for later STEM-related educational and career options. More specifically, the research we present in this article examined student perceptions of support and barriers to the development of math interests and the perceived influence of math engagement. Given that the development of math interest is complex and highly phenomenological, based on each person's experiences and meaning making, qualitative inquiry is the most appropriate approach for examining these perceptions.

Social cognitive career theory (Lent, Brown, & Hackett, 1994) acknowledges human agency in the career development process through the key mechanisms of self-efficacy, outcome expectations, and personal goals. The theory further positions career-related interest, choice, and performance within the interlocking developmental processes of academic and career interests, goals, and performance (Lent, 2005). The first two processes (i.e., interest development and goal development) are most directly related to STEM-related interests in pre- and early adolescence.

Children and adolescents are exposed to a variety of educational, recreational, and peer environments; experiences; and activities (e.g., math classes, mechanical tasks, computer activities). These also influence later career interests and choices (Lent, 2005; Lent et al., 1994). Parents, teachers, peers, and others sometimes unintentionally encourage young people to pursue some activities or tasks and to achieve expected levels of performance (Lent, 2005; Lent ct al., 1994). Through repeated encouragement and concomitant practice, children cultivate some skills, forming positive self-efficacy beliefs and a set of positive outcome expectations related to the associated tasks (Lent, 2005; Lent et al., 1994).

Individuals are more likely to develop interest in an activity if they believe they are competent at it (self-efficacy) and believe that performing the activity will produce valued outcomes (Lent et al., 1994). Likewise, a person is less likely to develop an interest in, and may even develop an aversion to, activities or tasks in which they have lower self-efficacy or expect undesirable outcomes. These early interests lead to goals for sustaining or increasing involvement in particular activities. Subsequently, these goals increase the likelihood of continued practice and of persistence in the face of challenges (Lent et al., 1994). Achievements that accrue through practice (e.g., self-satisfaction, awards, grades) modify existing levels of self-efficacy and outcome expectations. This cyclical feedback loop leads to more and more clearly defined interests that eventually lead to specific career-related behavior, including choice of college major and choice of career.

Contextual and individual variables (e.g., gender) influence these social cognitive variables (Lent et al., 1994). Parental, teacher, and peer cultural expectations related to gender-appropriate behavior may influence girls to participate in activities that are different from those m which boys are encouraged to participate. Male and female students may also receive different types or quantities of feedback on their performance in activities and school subjects (Eccles, 1987). Such biased access to opportunities for practicing and observing behaviors and discouraging participation in nontraditional activities negatively influence some individualsVeareer-relatcd self-efficacy in traditionally White, male fields such as mathematics and engineering (Hackett &: Betz, 1981; Lent et aL, 1994).

This career support or lack of support is important for young people's career development (Lent, Brown, & Hackett, 2000), especially support in the immediate contexts of family and school (Kenny, Gallagher, Alvarez, & Sibby, 2002). Perceived support from both parents and teachers is instrumental in its effect on career-related outcomes for middle and high school students (Lapan, Hinkelman, Adams, & Turner, 1999; McWhirter, Hackett, & Bandalos, 1998). Parents are a particularly important source of support for student development of math and science self-efficacy, levels of engagement, and career options (Flores & O'Brien, 2002; Navarro, Flores, & Worthington, 2007; Turner, Steward, & Lapan, 2004).

In addition, sources of perceived support within the school context, including perceived teacher support, play a critical role in providing students with a sense of belonging and engagement (Eccles & Midgley, 1989; Walker & Greene, 2009). Perceptions of less support in a classroom have a negative impact on early adolescents' interest in what is being taught in that classroom, although perceptions of teacher support contribute significantly to school engagement (A. M. Ryan & Patrick, 2001). Similarly, teacher support appears to be a necessary condition for positive school behavior and achievement outcomes (Hamrc & Pianta, 2001).

Engagement in classroom tasks influences the extent to which students believe that current learning is instrumental to their future success (Greene, Miller, Crowson, Duke, & Akey, 2004; Miller, Greene, Montalvo, Ravindran, & Nichols, 1996). In addition, middle school students' engagement in mathematics and their perception of its usefulness may decrease during the transition to middle school, leading to decreased effort and persistence in mathematics (Midglev, Feldlaufer, & Eccles, 1989; Pajares & Graham, 1999; Wigfield, Eccles, Maclver, Reuman, & Midglev, 1991). Some research has suggested that middle school girls exhibit greater interest in and enjoyment of math than their male peers (Cleary & Chen, 2009). However, there is still a wide gender gap in the eventual choice of college major and of careers in this field.

Our research examined the central hypothesis that students' early perceptions, tentatively established before and during middle school, strongly influence their broadening or narrowing of educational and career options at this critical point in their educational and career trajectories. These perceptions include perceived supports and perceived sense of engagement in school learning. We specifically addressed engagement in math class and math activities, as well as the perceived supports associated with this content area. Teachers' and parents' STEM-related perceptions are associated with students' perceptions and, thus, influence the narrowing or widening of the /one of possible options (Gottfredson, 1981). We focused on the first wave of data collected as part of a longitudinal study funded by the National Science Foundation. Our results are based on data collected from fifth-, seventh- and ninth-grade students during the 2007-2008 academic year. Specifically, the research question for our study was how do students describe perceived supports, barriers, and engagement as influencing their math interest?

Method

Participants

Sixty-seven students participated in focus groups for the phase of the study on which this article is focused, as did three parents and eight teachers. These students are part of a larger sample of 352 students. There are approximately 8,700 students in Central City Public Schools (CCPS; a pseudonym) where this study was conducted, with 11 elementary schools, three middle schools, and two high schools. We invited the principals at four of the elementary schools and all of the middle schools and high schools to participate in the study. One high school, two middle schools, and four elementary schools accepted our invitation. These seven schools had large...

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