Thursday, July 15, 2021

Analysis suggests fewer rural college students major in STEM fields because of inadequate high-school prep

Fewer rural college students major in science, technology, engineering and math than their suburban and urban peers, according to a new analysis of federal data. "Only 13 percent of rural and small town students major in math and science in college, compared with almost 17% of students in the suburbs ... Urban students also trail suburban students when it comes to studying science, but only by a little, according to the federal data." Jill Barshay reports for The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit education newsroom.

That's a problem when more jobs than ever require training in so-called STEM fields. "According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, occupations in these fields are projected to grow 8 percent by 2029, more than double the growth rate of non-scientific professions," Barshay reports.

Part of the reason for the gap is that fewer rural high-school students go to four-year colleges, but even those who do are less likely to major in STEM fields. A June 2021 data analysis may offer some clues as to why, Barshay reports. Researchers at Claremont Graduate University studied a federal dataset of more than 20,000 students nationwide, and found that rural students had the same interest in math and science careers as their suburban counterparts at the start of high school.

But many rural students weren't as well-prepared for STEM fields: "Rural students posted lower scores on math assessments in early ninth grade than their suburban counterparts and they had taken half as many high-school level courses in middle school," Barshay reports. "By the end of 11th grade, rural students’ desire to pursue a career in math or science dropped below 9%. Some suburban students became disenchanted with a life in math or science too, but their enthusiasm fell only 1 percentage point. At the same time, the math achievement gap between rural and suburban students grew even larger."

The researchers posited three explanations for rural students' declining interest in STEM fields: lack of advanced math and science classes; math and science teachers who weren't as qualified or confident; and fewer opportunities for extracurricular math and science through activities such as science fairs, robotics competitions, or math clubs, Barshay reports.

"Solving these problems won’t be easy. The Rural STEM Education Act proposes to improve teacher training and increase both online and hands-on science education in rural schools. It has bipartisan support, has passed the House and may become law," Barshay reports. "But it will remain hard to justify hiring an Advanced Placement physics teacher for just a handful of students in a small school and harder to recruit an excellent teacher to teach it."

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