How To Positively Impact Math Career Perceptions Among Youth

It’s April, and as a huge math fan it is time for me to honor Mathematics and Statistics Awareness Month! This month-long event began in the mid-1980s with a proclamation by President Ronald Reagan in which he stated…

“Despite the increasing importance of mathematics to the progress of our economy and society, enrollment in mathematics programs has been declining at all levels of the American educational system. Yet the application of mathematics is indispensable in such diverse fields as medicine, computer sciences, space exploration, the skilled trades, business, defense, and government. To help encourage the study and utilization of mathematics, it is appropriate that all Americans be reminded of the importance of this basic branch of science to our daily lives.”

While these words are over 30 years old, they very much remain true today. We still see lackluster interest and enrollment in math courses/programs and with the increasing prominence and availability of big data, we see math and statistics being more important than ever across a wide range of careers.

I have decided that this year, I will honor #MathStatMonth by sharing math data from our Couragion application. A major component of the Couragion app is its career literacy offering which exposes youth to STEM careers via videos of diverse role models and self-reflection quizzes. As students experience STEM careers, we gather data about the interests, values, and desired work characteristics of the future workforce. Such data offers insights into math-related perceptions and career interests among our youth.

One the downside, Couragion data shows lower initial interest in math among youth. For example, when students first begin using the app, we ask which of the four areas of STEM is most interesting to them. Math gets the least votes with only 18% of students selecting it. This number is slightly higher when looking at the sub-populations of females and people of color with 20% and 19% respectively selecting math as the most interesting STEM category.

As students begin to explore math-dominate careers, their career ratings and comments provide further data insights into their perceptions about math jobs. Two themes emerge. One is that students have a strong desire for jobs that have a greater purpose (such as helping people, animals, or the environment) and they don’t perceive math careers as offering this purpose. Secondly, students feel that a master’s degree is often desired for math careers and 61% of students prefer to complete less post-secondary education.

On the positive side, as students learn about the wide variety of math careers available and as they see diverse role models in those jobs, perceptions begin to shift – as illustrated by this comment from a 6th grade diverse male after learning about the Financial Advisor career: “I would like to be like her but the only problem is that I need to get better in math because I sometimes have a hard time but if I get better in math I would like to be like her!” Another example is a 10th grade Hispanic female that, after exploring 6 careers, stated: “This made me think of my path, math sounds like a plan A instead of a plan B”.

So, how can you use this information to positively impact math perceptions among the youth in your life? For starters, you can help students see how math is integral to jobs with greater work purpose – such as a cancer researcher using statistics to compare the success of various medical treatments or the climate dynamics analyst that uses math to understand the impact of ocean warming on coral reefs. In addition, you can expose students to career options and math role models via such things as the Couragion app, guest speakers, or workplace tours. And finally, you can show students that while 65% of jobs in 2020 will require some level of college education, only 11% of jobs are predicted to require a Master’s degree or higher – so they can qualify for many math jobs by earning a Bachelor’s or Associate’s degree (source: Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce Analysis). Such efforts can help to increase student interest in math careers.

For additional math content, check out my blog post from last year when I honored Mathematics and Statistics Awareness Month by sharing tips on how to boost math success among students.

Laura FarrellyComment