The school year has started again. The high school in my neighborhood is bustling with activity again. The marching band practices on the parking lot early in the morning. Cars with teenage drivers converge on the school. 

High school is interesting, because it is the first time that students have the chance to start picking their own classes. They have the change to determine the difficulty of the classes they want to take and they have some flexibility in the number of classes that they take in different subject areas.

This flexibility is particularly important when it comes to math and science classes.  It is generally agreed that the STEM disciplines (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) are important for the economy.  Students trained in these subjects go on to earn high salaries and to contribute to the growth of new businesses.

Yet, many students decide not to pursue difficult science and math classes in high school. These early choices have a lasting influence, because when these students go to college, they continue to stay away from science and math.

What can be done to get students to take more science and math?

One possibility would be to try to convince students that science and math are fun. Certainly, there are many people who find a lot of intrinsic enjoyment in solving math problems and in pursuing new knowledge through science. And according to psychologist Jacquelynne Eccles, students will gravitate toward classes that they enjoy.

The problem is that it can be difficult to convince a student who has not enjoyed math and science classes in the past that math and science are actually fun. And anyone who has tried to push a teenager to do something that he or she does not want to do knows how difficult that can be.

However, Eccles also suggests that students will take classes that they consider valuable, even if they do not think that the classes will be enjoyable at the time. That is, students realize that there are some classes that are just no fun, but that they need to take because of the importance of those classes for their future.

If we helped students to see the value in math and science classes, would that lead them to take more math and science?

That question was addressed in a study by Judith Harackiewicz, Christopher Rozek, Chris Hulleman, and Janet Hyde published in the August 2012 issue of Psychological Science.  They conducted their experiment as part of a longitudinal study of children in Wisconsin. 

Starting when these students were in the tenth grade, parents were sent brochures that described the value of math and science classes. The brochures also directed parents to websites that had more information on the value of math and science. Parents were encouraged to talk to their children about math and science classes. 

The researchers then analyzed the high school transcripts of these students for their last two years of high school.  The classes taken by these students were compared to the classes taken by a control group whose parents did not receive any information about math and science. The researchers also gathered information from parents and children about the number of conversations they had about math and science during high school.  Finally, the researchers had access to lots of demographic information about the families, because they were part of this long-term study.

 So what happened?

One important predictor of the number of math and science classes that students took was their parents’ level of education. The more education the parents had, the more math and science classes the students took.

On average, though, students whose parents received information about the value of math and science took one more semester of math and science in high school than those whose parents did not receive this information. In particular, these students tended to take more elective and advanced classes.

Finally, the students whose parents received information about the value of math and science reported having more conversations about math and science classes with their parents than the students whose parents did not receive this information.

Putting this all together, then, high school students may not love math and science.  But, they can see the value in these classes. When parents talk to their children about the importance of math and science, it really does have an impact on the classes they take. And presumably, a student who is well-prepared in math and science in high school will continue that education in college.

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