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Finding the leakages in STEM pathways for equity students

Research 6 minute read

Research shows that within the STEM pipeline, the transition from school to university, and from university into the STEM workforce are the two critical areas containing leaks for disadvantaged students. 

Skills in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) are promoted by the Australian government as pivotal for the nation’s economic prosperity. To supply this workforce of the future, student participation in STEM at school and university is vital.  

It is established that certain equity groups are underrepresented in the field. In particular, university course completion data shows that women comprise only 23% of all STEM course graduates. Furthermore, young people from low socioeconomic backgrounds and rural areas are less likely to access university and STEM pathways than others. An understanding of STEM pathways, and the factors associated with these pathways, has important implications for the nature and timing of equity initiatives targeted at improving STEM participation and completion. 

Several characteristics have been linked to STEM participation in the pipeline from school through to university and work, and research on equity groups in Australia and internationally suggests that belonging to an equity group is associated with several factors linked to leakage, or drop-outs, from the STEM pipeline. However, the participation of young people in equity groups along STEM pathways in Australia is still relatively unexplored, and less attention has focused on tracking the STEM pathways of various equity groups, or on the interplay between equity group membership and STEM pathways. 

In a newly published paper, The STEM pipeline: pathways and influences on participation and achievement of equity groups, researchers from ACER drew on longitudinal data from Australia to explore the STEM pathways of four equity groups:  

  • non-metropolitan
  • low socioeconomic status (low SES)
  • first in family
  • women.

To understand what factors influenced the participation of these equity group students in university STEM courses, the researchers examined how their pathways differed from those of non-equity group students. Specifically, the research tracked the type of STEM education and occupational pathways undertaken by young people in Australia from early adolescence into the workforce. The study also investigated factors established in the research literature to be important determinants associated with pursuing higher education STEM that could become a ‘STEM profile’. 

The findings of this research show that within the STEM pipeline, the transition from school into university, and from university into the STEM workforce are two critical areas containing leaks for equity groups, especially women and people from low SES backgrounds. 

The findings also support the idea that persisting with a STEM pathway into university may depend on developing a STEM profile in early adolescence. This STEM profile is characterised by higher self-confidence with mathematics and valuing mathematics as a career and life aspiration. 

This research has potential implications for policy and practice in relation to three areas of the student lifecycle – early and middle years of schooling; senior secondary school; and entry into the STEM workforce. Opportunities to influence these transition points to improve outcomes for students from equity groups include:

  • In the early and middle years of schooling, building mathematics programs and encouraging teaching approaches that focus on demonstrating the practical importance of mathematics, with the aim of increasing the value of mathematics with students before they turn 15. This is particularly important for students from equity groups.
  • In the senior years of schooling, policies and actions to encourage university participation among under-represented groups should continue and be refined to ensure the range of opportunities through higher education are understood.
  • In the later years of university, opportunities for work placements, internships and/or work integrated learning in STEM fields is critical for developing pathways into the STEM workforce. There is growing confidence and know-how in universities in implementing these strategies, with many successful women in STEM programs already in place. Increasing these programs and widening the focus on opportunities for all equity groups, particularly low SES students, should be a challenge taken up by universities and industry.

Read the full report:
The STEM pipeline: pathways and influences on participation and achievement of equity groups, by Daniel Edwards, Sarah Buckley, Neville Chiavaroli, Sheldon Rothman & Julie McMillan Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management. DOI: 10.1080/1360080X.2023.2180169 

This research was conducted under the NCSEHE Research Grants Program, funded by the Australian Government Department of Education, Skills and Employment. 

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