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Wednesday, May 29, 2024

UW-Madison's Chemistry Building, located on W Johnson Street, houses the Department of Chemistry and its various academic facilities. 

The science of staying motivated in STEM

New research from the University of Wisconsin-Madison sparks conversation about finding encouragement in competitive fields

During your freshman year at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, you’ll likely hear one question repeatedly: which chemistry class are you in? 

This introductory course is critical for incoming students, especially those who plan on majoring in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields. The competitive career sector requires an array of challenging classes that often feel distantly related to students' dream jobs. 

So, between the stress of sitting in lectures and studying for exams, how does the future STEM workforce stay motivated? 

A new UW-Madison study observed that when students reflect on real-world applications of science, they are more inclined to stay on their career path. To come to this conclusion, researchers surveyed over 2,000 students in an entry-level chemistry class. 

The study, which was featured in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, required students to complete written reflections over the course of the semester. One control group wrote answers exclusively on course learning goals, and one test group related them to the real world, reflecting on how chemistry concepts might be applied to other fields or their personal lives. 

While talking with UW-Madison psychology Professor Judith Harackiewicz, the UW-Madison news team found test group participants' answers ranged from surface level to critical thinking. 

Harackiewicz and other study organizers discovered that no matter how much thought went into the applied answers, the act of writing them made a difference. The UW-Madison news team reported that students who reflected on real-world applications were 4 percentage points more likely to be majoring in a STEM field 2.5 years after the chemistry course (74% vs 70% for the control group)

This data shift was especially prevalent for minority students in STEM fields. These students were 10 percentage points more likely than students who identify with the majority group (14% total) to still be studying STEM 2.5 years after the course (69% versus 55% for the control group).

So, why should people care about this information? For one, it provides evidence for future instructors that cultivating engaging course material matters. The addition of real-world applications on any scale motivates students to keep studying STEM topics. 

Secondly, it reveals who benefits from this motivation the most. The positive impact of the written reflections on underrepresented groups in this career sector shows that this may be a key strategy in increasing diversity in STEM fields, a long-term goal of many institutions. 

In 2021, the Pew Research Center evaluated future and current STEM workforce demographics. Pew found “Hispanic and Black adults are less likely to earn degrees in STEM than other degree fields, and they continue to make up a lower share of STEM graduates relative to their share of the adult population.” 

Pew also looked at diversity through the lens of gender, finding that “while women now earn a majority of all undergraduate and advanced degrees, they remain a small share of degree earners in fields like engineering and computer science.” 

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These gaps are often caused by institutional barriers and unequal access to educational resources. Considering this context, motivation is crucial for minority students in STEM. This is an important issue as diversity is beneficial for everyone in these fields, as noted by the University of California, Berkeley in an article from their “Understanding Science 101” series.

“The scientific enterprise benefits from participants with different cultures, religions, ages, sexual orientations, gender identities, disabilities, incarceration histories, classes and so much more,” researchers wrote. As evidence for this claim, researchers explained that diverse scientists ask diverse questions, diversity invigorates problem-solving and diversity facilitates specialization, among other factors. 

Of course, diversity means representing everyone, so it’s important to use this new research to target motivation in the face of a STEM barrier that doesn’t discriminate: isolation and competitive culture. 

Micheal Asher, an author on the chemistry motivation study, noted to the UW-Madison news team that “to encounter [real-world applications] in a class assignment may also communicate something about the culture of what STEM is like or what STEM courses can be like.” 

For many, STEM is not an environment for introspection or connection. 

While examining  conceptions of the field in relation to barriers to earning two- and four-year STEM degrees, the National Library of Medicine found normative cultural views that “inherent or natural ability” determines a person's capacity for STEM learning — more so than other subject domains — are commonplace among undergraduates in STEM fields. 

This perpetuates barriers already in place based on early education access and discourages motivation.

In addition, the National Library of Medicine noted introductory math and science courses operating as “gatekeeper courses” can discourage students from continuing to pursue a STEM degree. 

Between these issues and class environments — including disinterest, bias and rigor — it’s clear to see the culture of STEM can be less than welcoming. 

Emma, a statistics and economics student attending UW-Madison who asked that her last name remain anonymous, said being a STEM student has its “ups and downs,” especially as a woman in the field.

“The material is often more rigid with typically one-size-fits-all solutions and answers that really limit how students can approach certain scenarios,” Emma said. “Also, as a woman, I often feel alienated in STEM spaces. I know — even as a university student — I will be making less money than my male coworkers”. 

Despite the sometimes disheartening culture, STEM majors can be fulfilling. Furthermore, they are vital for our society. Students in these disciplines are future climate change solvers, nurses, engineers and more. If they can find encouragement and build community, their course of study can be everything they dreamed of. 

So, outside of UW-Madison’s recent study, how else can students stay motivated? 

On an international scale, researchers are investigating the personal and social contexts behind students' career choices. The International Journal of Innovation in Science and Mathematics Education created its own study focused on this in 2018. To answer the question of motivations, Yujin Lee, Mary M. Capraro and Radhika Viruru interviewed 44 high-achieving high school students who indicated an intent to study STEM in college. 

Students were asked a total of five questions focusing on where they saw themselves in the future and the role science plays in that picture. Based on the data collected, the study was able to identify six driving themes when it comes to “why STEM”: positive emotion, personal development, tools for the job, helping people, interacting with others and impacting the world. 

These factors are being recognized and expanded upon in the United States, as demonstrated in research done by Drs. Mokter Hossain and Micheal G. Robinson at the University of Nevada, Reno. These researchers recognized “many high-STEM-ability leave their career choices in STEM fields entirely at the college level.” 

To battle feelings of discouragement in the classroom, Hossain and Robinson proposed “the U.S. must provide more investment in supporting teacher preparation programs that provide strong content and pedagogical knowledge in STEM subjects” to increase inspiration and scientific literacy among all students. 

In a broader outlook, researchers concluded solutions to “the STEM education problem” should be handled in an interdisciplinary manner where learning is grounded in STEM discipline departments as well as social science and liberal arts colleges. 

Having a well-rounded educational experience is a common source of motivation for STEM majors at UW-Madison, and it’s one Emma cited as helpful. 

“To combat the stress of STEM, I like surrounding myself with non-stem extracurriculars and hobbies like film and art to keep myself from being burnt out,” Emma said. 

Luckily, UW-Madison has nearly 1,000 clubs on campus and countless spaces to explore passions outside of the classroom. Furthermore, many students choose to add a second major or certificate to diversify their course content and encourage interdisciplinary thought. 

In addition to these options for staying motivated on the STEM path, the authors of the UW-Madison chemistry course study plan to dive deeper into their research and find new ways to use science as a support mechanism for students. 

UW-Madison reports that “the researchers and their collaborators are expanding experiments with their utility-value interventions to about 7,000 students in introductory STEM courses at universities in three states, collecting more detailed information on their experiences during pivotal early challenges”. 

For students encountering early challenges — whether that’s deciding on a STEM major at SOAR or finishing your first year of finals — do not fret. 

Yes, you will possibly battle burnout, bias and more during your time pursuing a STEM major. Many nights will be spent studying and striving to learn as much as you can. It may even feel like science is consuming you at times. 

However, this doesn’t have to be bad. While science might look like a 50-question test, it can also look like researchers questioning how to help motivate you. Science can mean knowing the biology of a plant on the Lakeshore Path or reading a section of a student newspaper. 

STEM fields play a role in so many parts of our lives, and devoting your degree to them is a powerful choice. UW-Madison’s respected programs will push you to perfect your technical skills and hone your passion. Just be sure to look up from your textbook and out into the world every once in a while. 

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