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Informal Learning Environments and Impact on Interest in STEM Careers


Little research has been done to examine the impact of informal science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) learning on middle school students’ career aspirations. Participants included 507 incoming fifth through eighth graders from underrepresented populations in STEM fields, which were recruited at three sites. Data collected included semi-structured interviews, session reflection forms, and surveys administered before and at the end of the STEM summer learning experience. Social Cognitive Career Theory was used to examine the extent middle school students’ experiences at a STEM summer learning experience influenced their interest in STEM careers. Quantitative data were examined related to self-efficacy. Self-efficacy scores after the STEM learning experience were significantly higher than initial self-efficacy scores and justified further qualitative analyses. A deductive approach was used to analyze the qualitative data. The themes of role models, influence of the STEM summer learning experience, applicability of STEM, and empathy were revealed. Many students reported they were drawn to a specific STEM career because they wanted to help a person for whom they care about, such as a sibling with an illness or a family member battling cancer. This study demonstrates the need to provide all students the access and opportunity to engage in authentic, hands-on learning experiences that connect STEM to their daily lives, increase their interest in STEM, and introduce them to different STEM careers so they make more informed decisions about future STEM career choices and suggests that the role empathy plays in fostering students’ interest in STEM be further examined.

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Correspondence to Cathrine Maiorca.

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Maiorca, C., Roberts, T., Jackson, C. et al. Informal Learning Environments and Impact on Interest in STEM Careers. Int J of Sci and Math Educ 19, 45–64 (2021).

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  • Empathy in STEM
  • Informal learning
  • STEM education
  • Student interest in STEM careers