A 2014 report on student motivation toward STEM careers, out of The University of Nevada (How to Motivate US Students to Pursue STEM Careers by Md. Mokter Hossain, Michael G. Robinson) suggested, “Students need to be inspired in STEM subjects beginning in the middle school grades with course work and extracurricular activities focusing on honing problem solving skills in the high school grades.”
While I have no issue with the research of the Nevada team their conclusion seems short-sighted on two fundamental points. Students are not inspired by extracurricular programs. They do those things because they have already been inspired. More importantly, waiting to provide inspiration until middle and high school is a large part of the problem.
Programs, like Science Olympiad and First Robotics, are building and inspiring students to continue to pursue lofty and rigorous goals. However, these activities are limited to those teens that already see the appeal in such groups, in effect enhancing the growth rate of the stem but not the root.
A child’s opinion and attitude toward both math and science are formed long before they enter middle school. Even the most conservative estimates suggest that student perceptions of their own abilities are established by seven or eight years old. While there is a clear distance between perceived ability and inspiration, there is also a tangible link connecting the two. Students who do not feel they can be successful in math or science are not likely to be inspired to do math and science.