Res Sci Educ DOI 10.1007/s11165-014-9439-5
High School Students’ Perceptions of the Effects of International Science Olympiad on Their STEM Career Aspirations and Twenty-First Century Skill Development Alpaslan Sahin & Ozcan Gulacar & Carol Stuessy
# Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2014
Abstract Social cognitive theory guided the design of a survey to investigate high school students’ perceptions of factors affecting their career contemplations and beliefs regarding the influence of their participation in the international Science Olympiad on their subject interests and twenty-first century skills. In addition, gender differences in students’ choice of competition category were studied. Mixed methods analysis of survey returns from 172 Olympiad participants from 31 countries showed that students’ career aspirations were affected most by their teachers, personal interests, and parents, respectively. Students also indicated that they believed that their participation in the Olympiad reinforced their plan to choose a science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) major at college and assisted them in developing and improving their twenty-first century skills. Furthermore, female students’ responses indicated that their project choices were less likely to be in the engineering category and more likely to be in the environment or energy categories. Findings are discussed in the light of increasing the awareness of the role and importance of Science Olympiads in STEM career choice and finding ways to attract more female students into engineering careers. Keywords Science Olympiad . Career interest . Twenty-first century skills . Engineering . Gender . I-SWEEEP
Introduction Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education has become strategically important for countries aiming to be competitive in the global market. Schleicher (2007), head of the Indicators and Analysis Division of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), indicated that only countries with STEM-literate populations would be ready to compete in the current international market place. He justified his claim by pointing out differences in today’s work place, where work is often automated, A. Sahin (*) : C. Stuessy Texas A&M University, College Station, TX, USA e-mail: [email protected]
O. Gulacar Sam Houston State University, Huntsville, TX, USA
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outsourced, and digitized. Naturally, countries are initiating efforts to boost the quality and quantity of STEM education and STEM professionals. In the USA, President Obama started the Educate to Innovate campaign in 2009 to improve the participation and performance levels of US students in STEM subjects (Executive Office of the President 2009). This campaign encourage the federal government and many other philanthropic organizations, including companies, foundations, nonprofits, and science and engineering societies, to work with young people across America to excel in science and mathematics. After the US government placed an emphasis on diversifying and increasing the efforts to boost students’ STEM interests, various initiatives have been brought to the attention of the public sphere to produce students well prepared to enter the STEM workforce. For example, informal science learning opportunities were identified as one of the ways of increasing STEM interests in students (National Research Council 2011). Informal STEM learning opportunities include museums, zoos, afterschool clubs, and academic competitions such as Science Olympiad (National Research Council 2009; Ricks 2006; Robelen 2011). Science Olympiad claims to galvanize student interest in STEM subjects and develop the skills they need to function in a rapidly changing, multicultural, multiethnic, and multilanguage world. While one of the most common informal science learning activities in the world, Science Olympiad is currently one of the least studied (Wirt 2011). The purpose of this research was to explore how secondary school students from all over the world developed their career interests in science, and their perceptions regarding the role of the international Science Olympiad in encouraging their interests in STEM and their development of twentyfirst century skills.
Conceptual Framework and Review of Relevant Literature While Social Cognitive Career Theory (SCCT) was used to ground the conceptual framework for this study, relevant literature focusing on (a) factors affecting students’ selection of STEM majors, (b) twenty-first century skills, and (c) informal science learning was used to develop the “skeletal structure of justification” (Eisenhart 1991, p. 209), serving as a guide for data collection, analysis, and interpretation of the results. SCCT is a refinement of Bandura’s (1977) social cognitive theory (SCT), developed by Lent et al. (1994, 2000). SCCT is an application of SCT to individuals’ career choices. SCCT claims that an individual’s aspirations and career choices are the result of the complex interplay of personal, environmental, and behavioral factors (Maltese and Tai 2011). Three of the largest factors influencing career interest are personality, learning experiences, and self-efficacy in that career, where learning experiences appear to be mediated by self-efficacy (Schaub and Tokar 2005). Self-efficacy in a career is the belief that one can carry out specific actions related to that career (Bauer 2005). When controlling for learning experiences, SCCT has been demonstrated to be valid for both men and women (Williams and Subich 2006) and also appears to be independent of educational level and, most likely, university type (Lent et al. 2008). Indeed, SCCT was shown to account for nearly 40 % of the variance in a cohort of eighth grade Mexican-American students, a population very different from other studies on SCCT (Navarro et al. 2007). Career type has not appeared as a factor in any of the abovementioned studies or as a factor arising from a meta-analysis of SCCT data (Sheu et al. 2010). SCCT is related to the theory of planned behavior (TPB), as both theories look at self-efficacy and societal influences as antecedents to action, in this case career choice (Ajzen 2002). With the theoretical foundation of SCCT, additional relevant literature sources were used to guide data collection, analysis, and interpretation, summarized below in three sections.
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Factors Affecting Students’ Selections of a STEM Major Selecting a major is one of the most important decisions a high school student makes. As career choices have profound effects on students’ near and later futures, knowledge about factors influencing students’ career selection is very critical (Kuechler et al. 2009). Literature is replete with information about different factors influencing students’ decision-making processes involved in career choice. These include job security (Lee and Lee 2006; Malgwi et al. 2005), personal interest (Archer et al. 2013; Noel et al. 2003), job satisfaction (Kuechler et al. 2009), difficulty levels of preparation courses (Sabot and Wakeman-Linn 1991), and relationships (e.g., friends, parents, spouses, role models) (Archer et al. 2013; Zhang 2007). During the last decade, students’ selection of a STEM-related major has become strategically important. Countries’ futures have become dependent on how successful they are in developing STEM education programs attracting more students into STEM careers. Research on STEM career choice tells us that factors inspiring students to choose STEM areas are similar to the factors affecting students’ non-STEM career choices. For example, Maltese and Tai (2011) categorized these three factors into three groups: (a) students’ high school experiences, (b) classroom experiences, and (c) career aspirations. Another group of researchers, Burkam and Lee (2003), developed a “pipeline” model to explain their observations that students continuing with more advanced courses in mathematics were more likely to associate course work with their personal interests and pursuit of a career in a STEM-related discipline. In another study examining gender differences, Trusty (2002) found that female students enrolled in advanced mathematics courses and male students who took physics in high school were more likely to choose majors in mathematics and science, respectively. Another high school-related research report found that male and female students with high grade point averages (GPA) and educational aspirations were more likely to major in STEM (Ware and Lee 1988). International research on the issue yielded similar findings with cohorts of tenth grade students (Kidd and Naylor 1991). In this study, course enrollments and occupational interests had the greatest direct effects on students’ STEM major contemplations. In a recent 5-year longitudinal project completed in the UK, called ASPIRES, a group of researchers explored science aspirations and engagement among 10–14 year olds. The ASPIRES project was funded by the UK’s Economic and Social Research Council (RES179250008) as part of its Targeted Initiative on Science and Mathematics Education. As part of this study, Archer et al. (2013) interviewed students about the sources of their aspirations, the reasons for their interest, how students’ ideas developed, and what had influenced those ideas. They found that families and family friends are particularly important sources of influence on students’ aspirations with almost half of the interview participants contemplating the same job as a family member or close family friend. The second major group of sources of aspiration was children’s hobbies, activities, and interests that they pursue outside of school. These aspirations were overwhelmingly about arts- and sports-related activities. The third greatest source of influence was school and the curriculum that students are exposed to. To these authors, the school appeared to inspire many students to become teachers and help students to develop interests and aptitudes for other areas through the curriculum. In another study from the same project, Archer et al. (2012) examined “how the interplay of family habitus and capital can make science aspirations more thinkable for some (notably middle-class) children than others” (p. 882). They suggested that although there is no direct relationship between family habitus, capital, and a child’s science propensity, “social inequalities in the distribution of capital and differentially classed family habitus combine to produce uneven (classed, racialized) patterns in children’s science aspirations and potential future
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participation” (p. 882). So, while these factors may not be deterministic, they nevertheless play an important role in students’ aspirations. Research regarding classroom experience has focused on the pedagogical practices, educational activities, and achievement outcomes that takes place in mathematics and science classrooms (Maltese and Tai 2011; Myers and Fouts 1992). Accordingly, the type of experiences received in STEM classes has effects on students’ selection of STEM careers (Cleaves 2005; Munro and Elsom 2000). In order for students to have positive attitudes toward STEM-related subjects, teachers can enrich their teaching by integrating more hands-on activities, teaching more topics with daily life applications, and increasing the use of cooperative learning strategies (Myers and Fouts 1992). Pedagogical strategies including group work and active learning methods (e.g., inquiry- and project-based learning) help students develop positive attitudes toward science, especially for female and ethnic minority students (Oakes 1990). A recent college-level study sponsored by Microsoft Corporation (2011) used data from two national surveys of college students pursuing STEM degrees. In pursuit of effective strategies to inspire the next generation of doctors, scientists, software developers and engineers, and parents of K–12 students, this research team asked college students pursuing a STEM degree to rate how well their K–12 education prepared them for their college courses in STEM and to explain why they chose to pursue a STEM academic path. While the majority (78 %) of students indicated that their decisions to study STEM started before college, only 21 % stated that they made their choice during middle school or earlier. More than half (57 %) of STEM majors identified a teacher as influential in affecting their interest in STEM. These students believed that having a passion for STEM and studying hard were the most important factors affecting their selection. External factors such as mentors or role models were less important. Reasons for their choice of STEM majors included (1) potential for a good salary, (2) better chances of finding a job, and (3) work that is intellectually stimulating and challenging. Students chose STEM majors not because someone had influenced them but because they perceived STEM jobs to be better paying, more secure, and more intellectually challenging. In addition, a number of researchers have reported that students showing interest in STEM subjects as early as middle school were more likely to pursue a career in STEM and had more momentum to graduate as STEM professionals (Cleaves 2005; Maltese and Tai 2011; Tai et al. 2006). Another study employing a longitudinal study of US youth revealed that instructional quality, achievement in the course, and attitude toward science had significant correlations with students’ STEM career decisions (Wang and Staver 2001). Underrepresentation of Females in Engineering Fields Research has yielded different factors why female students do or do not aspire to engineering majors. For instance, Faulkner (2006) did a study on gender in engineering and found that females who choose engineering majors and work as engineers are those who “…are extremely confident, high achievers, even rebels—the sort to seek out a challenge” (p. 2). Fouad and Singh (2011) explored why women leave engineering. Their study included women who did not enter engineering after high school graduation. Female high school graduates perceived engineering as being inflexible and engineering work environments as being nonsupportive of women and therefore did not choose engineering as a major after their graduation. Atkins (2013) investigated the perceptions of successful female engineers in the UK, including an exploration of their ideas about successful methods for encouraging young women to follow in their footsteps. Participants’ perceptions were that female students are not inclined to choose engineering majors because they think engineering is (a) dominated by males, (b) involves fixing things, (c) too difficult, and (d) requires physical strength.
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In a recent study, researchers investigated engineering education opportunities, perceptions, and career choices of secondary school students in Hong Kong SAR, China (Kutnick et al. 2012). The study revealed that students’ perceptions about the engineering major differ with the age of students, and that students’ perceptions about engineering become less positive as they get older. The authors found that students at age 14 have the highest inclination for engineering majors. Another interesting finding of the study related to the timing of offering engineering summer camps and courses. Kutnick et al. stated that offering these opportunities during high school is too late to cultivate interest in students. The study also found that girls meeting with female engineers in a single-gender context provide more benefit in terms of developing positive attitudes toward engineering than a mixed-gender context. Findings from gender studies as a whole suggest that female students’ eventual decisions about engineering as a career are complex and can be largely explained by home and cultural background (Devine 2004). Twenty-First Century Skills Despite the fact that twenty-first century skills may seem new and innovative, literature suggests that an emphasis on increasing students’ abilities to think critically, analytically, and creatively is not new. These skills have been promoted from the time of Socrates (Wirt 2011). The difference in today’s world, however, is that the dissemination of knowledge is now extremely rapid and the Internet has removed the geographic boundaries between people. Nothing remains local; the world, in effect, has become one small village. Leadership in the world economy is dependent on the quality of the supporting workforce. Although most literature speaks of similar skills for the workforce of twenty-first century, there may not be a consensus on what the skill set comprises. Silva (2008) stated: For all of the talk about 21st century skills, trying to figure out what they really are is not easy. The term 21st century skills is everywhere and used to describe pretty much every imaginable skill or attribute: soft skills, life skills, key skills, inter-personal skills, workforce skills, noncognitive skills the list of skills goes on and on. (p. 1) Jerald (2009) defines twenty-first century skills as the ones that will allow students to tackle jobs where there are no routine tasks and predictable patterns to follow. Expert thinking and complex communication are two skills Jerald defines as important. Complex communication means to communicate with others to gain and disseminate information. Expert thinking is the skill that enables one to solve ill-defined problems that have no predictable solution. In addition to these skills, skills that allow employees to work collaboratively with the world must be included, because after globalization, the whole world has become a giant marketplace. Other skills defined by Jerald as twenty-first century skills include learning how to learn, problem solving, collaboration and leadership, having a strong background in content, and agility and adaptability. Wagner (2008) suggested seven skills after meeting with several hundred business, nonprofit, philanthropic, and education leaders such as Dell, Siemens, and Apple. In order to thrive in the new world, the next generation should master the following skills: (a) critical thinking and problem solving, (b) collaboration and leadership, (c) agility and adaptability, (d) initiative and entrepreneurialism, (e) effective oral and written communication, (f) accessing and analyzing data, and (g) curiosity and imagination. Asking the right questions and the ability to take risks and experience failure are examples of some of the subskills defined under these seven skills. These skills are seen as invaluable in raising the next generation who might hold a position of decision-making related to social, economic, cultural, and political issues.
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Overall, different groups define different skills as twenty-first century skills depending on their own perspective. However, an emerging body of research agrees on a set of skills—such as adaptability, complex communication skills (including presentation and collaboration), the ability to solve non-routine problems, creativity and learning to learn, innovation, scientific, and critical thinking, technology and life, and career skills—that are mostly used across a wide range of professions in the global economy (Levy and Murnane 2004; Partnership for 21st Century Skills 2009). Informal Science Learning Informal learning has been defined as the learning taking place outside the classroom (Maarschalk 1988; Tamir 1990). A variety of activities alternative to the traditional schooling have received attention in educational settings as a way to promote student learning and develop science literacy (Robelen 2011). Considering that a large portion of school time is currently spent on mathematics and literacy, informal learning environments embody a huge potential for science learning (National Research Council 2009). The Academic Competitiveness Council reported that informal education is one of the important elements of the US educational system, which may help raise the number of citizens literate in STEM (U.S. Department of Education 2007). Informal education is also seen as a fundamental pipeline for increasing interest, understanding, and appreciation toward STEM (National Science Board 2007). Informal learning environments take different forms, including summer camps, after-school programs, science museums, field trips, science fairs, and Science Olympiads (Sahin 2013; Sahin et al. 2014). It is evident that hands-on activities associated with informal environments, such as those provided in science fairs and Olympiads, enhance students’ interest, motivation, and engagement in STEM content (Ricks 2006; Sawyer 2006). Furthermore, a growing body of research identifies informal learning environments as significant sources of knowledge and skill development. The National Academy of Sciences’ report Learning science in informal environments: people, places, and pursuits connects visiting science museums to the enrichment of scientists’ scientific knowledge, interest, and capacity (Bell et al. 2009).
Problem While policymakers have identified informal learning environments as a source for cultivating STEM interests and developing twenty-first century skills (e.g., Schweingruber and Fenichel 2010), very few investigations have confirmed that relationships exist between students’ engagement in science competitions and their ensuing STEM interests, content learning, or twenty-first skill development (McGee-Brown n.d.; Wirt 2011). In this study, we identified general factors associated with international Science Olympiad contestants’ career choices including contestants’ perceptions about the role of Science Olympiads in influencing their career decisions and in improving their twenty-first century skills; and their gender in selecting the type of projects to enter into the Olympiad competition (i.e., engineering, environmental, or energy). The research questions investigated were: 1. What do Science Olympiad contestants identify as the factors most influential in their future career plans? 2. What are the Science Olympiad participants’ perceptions about the role of Science Olympiads in influencing their career decisions and in improving their twenty-first century skills?
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3. How do students’ choices of environment, energy, and engineering projects differ by gender?
Methods Participants Participants for this investigation were high school students from 31 countries participating in the 2012 International Sustainable World Energy, Engineering, and Environment Project (ISWEEEP) Olympiad. I-SWEEEP is an international Science Olympiad with the mission “to spark interest and awareness in our planet’s sustainability challenges, help young people grasp the extent of these issues, find workable solutions to these challenges, and accelerate the progress toward a sustainable world by engaging the youth at an early age” (I-SWEEEP 2013, p. 1). With this goal in mind, I-SWEEEP was organized for secondary-school students to position themselves to be the pre-eminent scientists and engineers of the future to contemplate contemporary global problems. Five hundred students representing 65 countries competed in the 2012 I-SWEEEP competition. US students qualified for the competition by winning an award at a regional, state, or national science fair competition. International students qualified to compete with approval of their projects by the I-SWEEEP Scientific Review Committee. Students competed in one of three categories: 1. Energy: I-SWEEEP promotes renewable energy, energy efficiency, energy management, and clean technology concepts in secondary education. 2. It will be these individuals who have a greater understanding of global issues and the importance of technology in achieving global sustainability who will be at the forefront of environmental research and development. (ISWEEEP, 2014, p.1). 3. Environment: I-SWEEEP is another step in the educational efforts to develop an environmentally conscious and responsible community, to inspire personal responsibility in caring for the environment, and to direct the educational resources and fresh minds on environmental problems. For each project, the I-SWEEEP organization committee covered two contestants’ expenses. In 2012, I-SWEEEP was a 4-day endeavor held in Houston, TX. In addition to the competition, students participated in different field trips including tours of the city, NASA, and local higher institutions, and in social events occurring at the convention center and in local hotels. Winners of the grand award, gold, silver, and bronze medals receive money awards of $1,500, $600, $300, and $150 respectively. Survey Instrument We developed a 21-item online survey including both multiple choice and open-ended questions to gather information about Olympiad participants’ demographics, prior experience with Science Olympiads, factors influencing their future plans, and their perceptions of the influence of their participation in Olympiad on their career choices and improvement in twenty-first century skills. Skills identified by Partnership for 21st Century Skills (2009) were used to structure ten questions requesting students to rate the degree to which they attributed
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their participation in I-SWEEEP to improving their abilities in the ten twenty-first century skills. Partnership for 21st Century Skills has collaborated with the business community (e.g., AT&T Foundation, Blackboard, Dell, Microsoft Corporation), education leaders (e.g., ETS, McGrawHill, National Education Association), and policymakers to define a powerful vision for twentyfirst century education to ensure every child’s success as citizens and workers in the twenty-first century. A literature review resulted in the list of potential twenty-first century skills, which was endorsed by the US Department of Education (Partnership for 21st Century Skills 2009). STEM experts checked the construct validity of the skills used in the instrument (see Appendix). Each question regarding a twenty-first century skill required students to rate their responses on a Likert-type scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being extremely improved. High instrument reliability for the ten items was estimated using a calculation of Cronbach’s alpha (α=0.927). Survey Administration We conducted our study with the approval of the director of the I-SWEEEP organizational committee. We sent the survey via e-mail to the director to distribute to all five hundred 2012 ISWEEEP contestants. Contestants completed the survey electronically within a 2-week window of time. Reminders were sent twice, resulting in a final number of 172 respondents (out of 500) representing 31 countries. A 34 % response rate for online survey returns was considered acceptable, following guidelines established by the Instructional Assessment Resources (2011), which state that an average response rate of at least 30 % is necessary for online surveys. Analyses A mixed methods approach was used to merge qualitative coding methods for open-ended questions with quantitative data. Descriptive statistics and chi-squared tests were used to answer the first question, t test and ANOVA for the second question, and chi-squared tests for the third research question. One of the open-ended questions asked students to report three factors that students thought affected their career interest. For the first question, a method of constant comparison was employed by two researchers to code responses and derive common themes. Inter-coder reliability was calculated to be .85.
Results We designed this study to explore how and to what extent high school students benefit from their participation in the I-SWEEEP international Science Olympiad. Three questions guided this investigation to (1) identify factors perceived by Olympiad participants as most influential in their future career plans, (2) determine participants’ perceptions about the role of their participation in influencing their career decisions and improving their twenty-first century skills, and (3) compare male and female participants’ choices of environment, energy, and engineering projects. Demographic Characteristics of Survey Respondents The first four questions on the survey requested demographic information about the 172 (out of 500) individual I-SWEEEP participants. Most respondents (n=123) were from the USA, while the remaining (n=49) represented 30 other countries in Europe, Asia, South America, and North America. Percentages of responses from male and female percentages were 44.8 % (n=77) and 55.2 % (n=95), respectively. The age group of contestants from the USA was scattered between 15
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and 18 with the exception of five students who were 14 years of age, while the age group of the international contestants ranged between 14 and 20. Almost half (41 %) of the international students attended a private school, while this percentage for the US students was only 15 %. In each group, contestants were usually from 11th and 12th grades, with 60 % from the USA and 65 % from the international respondents. Ages, grade levels, and school type distribution information are summarized in Table 1. Factors Influencing Career Choices To address the first research question, question #7 requested respondents to identify three factors, in order, that most affected their career interests in STEM. While most respondents identified three factors, some did not, resulting in a total of 325 factors identified by respondents. A series of coding cycles resulted in a high percentage of agreement (85 %) between two coders. Coders clustered factors identified by students into six major themes. Table 2 lists counts and percentages for each theme. Three-quarters (74.5 %) of all factors identified by respondents were represented by three themes: science teachers (31.1 %), personal interests (23.7 %), and parents (19.7 %). The three additional themes (i.e., participation in science fairs and Olympiads, internships or working with professors, and job availability and salary) comprised about one-quarter (26.5 %) of respondents’ other coded responses to the question. Participants’ responses to question #10, which requested information about the grade level at which students first engaged in a science project, were also used to answer the first research Table 1 Demographics of I-SWEEEP participants responding to the determining influences of science competitions (DISC) survey Demographic Gender
School type Public
Res Sci Educ Table 2 Themes identified by Olympiad participants (n=172) as affecting their interests in stem careers Themes
Science fairs and Olympiads Internships or working with professors
Job availability and salary Total
question. Students’ responses to question #10 were used to test an assumption that the earlier a student interacts with an informal science learning activity (e.g., visiting a zoo, museum, science center or participating in a stem competition, etc.), the greater the chance that the student will be interested in STEM fields (Sullivan 2007; Tai et al. 2006). A chi-square analysis was used to determine whether students with early participation in a science fair were more likely to have higher personal interest in STEM-related majors (see Table 3). The analysis revealed a statistically significant relationship between the first time of a student’s science fair experience and personal interest in STEM (p