How high school students envision their STEM career pathways


Given that many urban students exclude Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics careers from their career choices, the present study focuses on urban high school students and adopts the social-cultural approach to understand the following questions: how do students envision their careers? What are the experiences that shape students’ self-reflections? And how do students’ self-reflections influence the way they envision their future careers? Five students were interviewed and data were coded in two ways: by topic domains and confidence levels. The research findings indicate that: first, a lack of information about future careers limits students from developing effective strategic plans; second, students’ perceived ability to handle situations of potential barriers and communications with their parents might contribute to their certainty about and confidence in future careers.

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This paper was supported in part by the Innovative Technology Experiences for Students and Teachers (ITEST) from the National Science Foundation under Grant No. DRL 0833624. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

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Correspondence to Lin Zhang.

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Lead Editor: B. Cowie

Appendix: Interview protocol

Appendix: Interview protocol

Post-high school goals

  1. 1.

    A lot of students have some idea about what they would like to do after high school. For example, some students want to attend college, some want to join the military and some students want to get a job right away. Do you have some ideas of what you’d like to do after this year, immediately after you graduate from high school?

  2. 2.

    What are your career goals at this point?

    1. a.

      Please specify the job you would most like to have after your finish your education.

    2. b.

      If you cannot name the job, perhaps you can tell us about the field that you are interested in.

  3. 3.

    If you plan to go to college, what type of courses/classes do you think you will be taking?

    1. a.

      What do you think your major will be?

  4. 4.

    If you could do whatever you wanted for a career, regardless of the preparation required or talents, what would you do?

Description of self as student

  1. 5.

    Can you tell me a little bit about yourself as student?

  2. 6.

    What do you think helps you the most to do well in school?

  3. 7.

    What is the connection, if any, between how you are as a student now and your life in the future?

Reactions to STEM courses and experiences

  1. 8.

    What has your experience been in school with courses/classes in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM)?

  2. 9.

    What did you like and not like about these courses/classes?

  3. 10.

    How skilled do you feel in your STEM classes?

  4. 11.

    How interested are you in exploring or pursuing a STEM career in the future?

  5. 12.

    Have you explored any career interests in STEM fields in the past few months?

    1. a.

      If you have explored STEM fields, what prompted you to do so?

    2. b.

      If you have not explored, is there anything that has kept you from considering these fields further?

Social support and relational influences

  1. 13.

    What have you learned from your teachers about STEM courses and fields?

  2. 14.

    Also, what have you learned from your counselors about STEM courses and fields?

  3. 15.

    What sort of conversations do you have with your parents or guardians about your future education and career plans?

  4. 16.

    Are any of your family members currently in or was in the past enrolled in college? Where were they enrolled? What did they study?

  5. 17.

    How do your parents or guardians feel about STEM fields in general? To what extent do they talk about science and technology at home?

  6. 18.

    How have your parents or guardians talked about STEM courses and fields in your conversations with them?

  7. 19.

    What sort of conversations do you have with your friends on STEM related issues?

  8. 20.

    If you were to express an interest in STEM classes or a STEM career, how would your friends react?

  9. 21.

    If your friends thought that you should not focus so much on school, how would you respond?

    1. a.

      Also, how would you respond if your friends told you not to explore STEM fields?

  10. 22.

    Can you think of a time when your interest in something was different from your friends’ interests?

    1. a.

      If yes: what was that like?

    2. b.

      How did you maintain that interest and your friendships?

  11. 23.

    Do you ever feel as though you have to choose between doing well in school and maintaining your friendships? If yes, how do you handle those situations?

Gender, race, and ethnicity and STEM exploration

  1. 24.

    To what extent do your family, friends and people in your community support your educational and career plans? (If not, what would they like to see you do?)

  2. 25.

    How do you think your family’s expectations about your future plans are shaped by the fact that you are a woman/man?

  3. 26.

    How does your sense of yourself as a man or woman affect your career exploration and options? How do you think your gender influences your interests and what you believe you can do in the future?

  4. 27.

    Counselors and teachers have become much more aware of how important it is to understand the cultural background of each student. Please tell us about your cultural, ethnic, and racial background. How do you identify yourself in terms of race and ethnicity?

  5. 28.

    How does your sense of yourself racially and ethnically affect your career exploration and options?

    1. a.

      In your opinion, how have your cultural beliefs influenced your career interests and expectations for what you can accomplish in the future?

    2. b.

      What are your family and community’s expectations about what you are going to do in the future as a person from background?

Future goals/expectations/fears

  1. 29.

    When you think about the future (for example, a few years from now), what do you most hope that you will do or that will happen to you?

  2. 30.

    When you think about the future, is there anything that you are afraid that you might do /not do or that might happen to you?

  3. 31.

    What kinds of events, situations, and people might prevent you or others you know from reaching their/your goals?

  4. 32.

    What do you think will help you reach your goals?

  5. 33.

    Can you reflect on any particularly difficult time? How did you handle or overcome this difficult time? Please include only insight and details if you feel comfortable.

  6. 34.

    Would you like to add anything about your future plans that we didn’t get to today?

(Thank student!)

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Zhang, L., Barnett, M. How high school students envision their STEM career pathways. Cult Stud of Sci Educ 10, 637–656 (2015).

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  • Urban high school students
  • STEM career development
  • Career certainty
  • Career vision
  • Underrepresented population