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Study: Gen Z Interested in STEM but Lacks Exposure

A recent study of Generation Z’s attitudes toward STEM found that only 29 percent of them cite STEM jobs as their first career choices, despite 75 percent expressing interest in the subjects academically.

STEM science, technology, engineering, math illustration concept showing four separate tiles with the letters "s," "t," "e," and "m" above them and people and objects on them like a gear wheel and microscope that relate to STEM subjects.
Jobs in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM)-related fields are expected to increase 11 percent between 2022 and 2032, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But in order to fill those jobs, a new study from the research firm Gallup and nonprofit Walton Family Foundation suggests that schools need to do more to increase student exposure to STEM career opportunities and core concepts.

According to the study, titled Voices of Gen Z: Perspectives on STEM Education and Careers, only 29 percent of students born between 1997 and 2012 (Generation Z) cite STEM jobs as their first career choices, despite 75 percent expressing interest in STEM fields. The survey, which asked over 2,000 Gen Z students about their career interests, found that lack of exposure to STEM subjects and opportunities — particularly among female Gen Z students — is partly to blame for the statistical disconnect, and that students who are exposed to a higher number of STEM topics in middle and high school are more than twice as likely to pursue a STEM job or STEM major in college.

The research is in line with other recent studies, such as from the University of Missouri, that found a critical need to increase student exposure to STEM subjects and career opportunities for low-income, non-white and female demographics that remain largely underrepresented in the talent pipeline.

“There have been significant, impactful investments in STEM education, but even more is needed to ensure students move beyond interest and actually explore careers in STEM,” Stephanie Marken, Gallup partner and executive director of education research, said in the study’s announcement. “By creating programs that allow students the opportunity to explore, understand and apply core STEM concepts and to participate in hands-on learning, we can set youth up for successful careers in an industry that desperately needs them.”

The study noted that only about a third of Gen Z high school students reported learning about core STEM-related topics like 3D design and cybersecurity. It also noted that 82 percent of students said their school offered STEM classes that teach about real-world applications, and 72 percent had opportunities for STEM extracurricular activities, but fewer reported having chances to gain skills through hands-on work like building electrical circuits (29 percent) or using coding programs and robotics tools (42 percent).

Corban Tillemann-Dick, founder and CEO of the quantum technology startup Maybell Quantum, told Government Technology that generating more interest among students about actually pursuing STEM careers will be essential to the future development of emerging technologies like quantum computing and artificial intelligence.

“It’s fascinating how a large majority of Gen Z is interested in STEM, but only about 30 percent see a STEM role as their first career choice. That is a critical gap for companies like mine and the rest of the industry that depends on Gen Z to learn critical skills to build the future of technology,” he said. “Quantum computing has the potential to be as important to the next 100 years as semiconductors or the Internet were to the last 100 years, and it’s Gen Z that has to build that industry as it grows in the coming decades.”

According to the study, only 63 percent of female Gen Z students are interested in STEM fields, compared to about 85 percent among their male counterparts. In addition, the study found, only 39 percent of females had learned about technical STEM concepts and skills like computer programming, compared to 54 percent among male students. Fifty-seven percent of female respondents said they don’t think they would be good at a STEM career, compared to 38 percent of males.

Tillemann-Dick said that while there has been a lot of work in recent years to generate student interest in STEM, as well as a growth in workforce development partnerships between tech companies and schools, the need to diversify STEM fields and programs remains critical to building the tech talent pipeline.

“There are programs for the youth of Generation Z that facilitate that and that are building an incredible and diverse group of talent for us to draw on,” he said, noting schools’ increased efforts to build STEM interest in recent years. “Diversity fuels innovation, and ... if we don’t have a broadly inclusive and equitable quantum industry, then we will fall short of the promise of quantum.”

Dawn Jones, vice president of social impact and chief diversity and inclusion officer at the tech company Intel, reiterated that schools, policymakers and the tech industry must work together to expose students to STEM opportunities.

“Creating access to equitable and hands-on STEM experiences is key to helping inspire and prepare today’s youth to claim their positions among the next generation of innovators and ultimately fuel a more skilled and inclusive future workforce,” Jones said in a public statement. “Through our K-12 STEM education programming, Intel aims to foster curiosity, critical thinking, and creativity to create a diverse community of learners poised to shape the future.”
Brandon Paykamian is a staff writer for Government Technology. He has a bachelor's degree in journalism from East Tennessee State University and years of experience as a multimedia reporter, mainly focusing on public education and higher ed.