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Developing YOUth! Project

Measuring the long-term impact of a STEM-based out-of-school time program

April 4, 2018

A Research Paper on Gender Differences in Development of STEM Career Interest

Posted by Aaron Price on April 4, 2018

At the very beginning of this project, we conducted a "where are they now?" study about the alumni of the first 10 years of the Science Minors and Achievers program. Our design was informed by prior research studying alumni of other similar programs conducted at the New York Hall of Science and the Whitney Museum of American Art, among others. 

We were mostly interested in the program’s impact on participants’ overall relationship to science and STEM career interests. We sent surveys to more than 500 alumni for whom we had contact information, mostly addresses left over from when they were in our program. We timed the surveys to arrive during the Thanksgiving holiday break, having assumed that most of the addresses we had were probably associated with their parents/guardians, and the holiday weekend was the most likely time of year when they would return home. We also sent a postcard reminder to complete the survey the week after Christmas for the same reason. Finally, we emailed those for whom we had email addresses and contacted a few on social media. We offered a gift card incentive to try to increase response rate and minimize the possibility that only people who enjoyed the program would respond. 

Overall, we received responses from 167 alumni. After analyzing the data, we also interviewed 49 alumni via telephone to look for deeper meaning behind the survey responses.

We did not see any differences in attitudes toward science that were associated with traits such as gender, race/ethnicity, when participants were in the program, how long they participated, whether they attended public or private schools, etc. 

However, we did have one surprise finding. Female alumnae reported a greater increase in STEM career interest while in MSI’s program than male alumni. In the graph below, the blue colors reflect times when the youth were in our program (the average participant spends 2.7 years in our program). The yellow colors reflect time after they graduated from high school (and subsequently left our program).

There are two fascinating things in this graph. First, the increase in STEM career interest in high school is at odds with what most researchers report for society in general. Usually, STEM career interest among female and male youth is similar until adolescence. Typically, it is during the middle and high school years that female youth tend to lose interest at a higher rate than male youth. Yet, we see the opposite while participants are in our program! Female participants’ STEM career interest increased more sharply while in our program than male participants’ STEM career interest. 

The other interesting finding is what happens in college. Contrary to what was witnessed in high school, females dropped out of STEM majors while in college at a sharper rate than males.  This is a phenomenon well reported by other researchers. While both male and female college students both drop out of STEM majors at a high rate in college, female students drop out at a much higher rate. This is especially true if you include the transition period between high school and college.

Why do our findings differ from others? This study was not causal, so we don’t know for sure. Since we did not have an equal comparison group, we cannot compare our group to the general population. Our current Developing YOUth! study was designed to answer that very question and early findings are just around the corner.

But the interviews with the alumni can give us a hint. In general, we found differences in how female alumnae describe their relationship with program staff than male alumni. We also found signs pointing to that in our survey data. Perhaps these different types of relationships were a factor in the findings. Our results were recently published in the journal Applied Developmental Science. We published them with an open access license, meaning you can read it and share it without having to buy the journal. Stay tuned and we will post some early findings from the follow up study.