TAMPA — A University of South Florida assistant professor was just awarded almost $1.2 million from the National Science Foundation to study what makes high school students pursue, or not pursue, STEM careers.
The buzzword de jour stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math — fields that state leaders, including Florida Gov. Rick Scott, say need to be a priority. But Will Tyson has been studying it since before it was trendy.
Tyson, from USF's sociology department, has largely focused on STEM opportunities for women and minorities. He's found that while minorities are typically underrepresented in those areas, the few who do pursue those fields are more likely to stick with them.
With this new four-year grant, Tyson will lead a team of members of USF's departments of sociology, anthropology and the Florida Advanced Technological Education Center at Hillsborough Community College in an attempt to figure out a way to encourage more of those students — and high school students, in general — to pursue STEM in the first place.
We spoke to Tyson recently about his plans.
As a sociologist, what was it about STEM that interested you?
When you study education, there have been rapid gains made, particularly by women, but also minorities, yet you still see women and minorities behind in STEM education. And STEM fields offer a direct pathway to the workforce. People who have carried the load, the older, white male workforce, are getting closer to retirement. The way we're going to grow the STEM workforce isn't by targeting those same populations, but by getting more women, who make up a larger population of students, and minorities, to take high-level math and science courses.
How do you get them on that path? Any ideas?
That's the key question in this research. There are a lot of different strategies. Part of it is getting students into those higher track courses as early as ninth- and 10th-grade — getting them into honors algebra 1 instead of general algebra 1. The goal of education is to get the most out of every student, to give them the best opportunity to succeed. It's up to parents, up to teachers, up to administrators and it's up to the students themselves.
What exactly are you doing with this grant?
A quantitative part of it is using data from the Florida Department of Education and workforce data, and by tracking students in local high schools — looking at who starts programs and who finishes them, and what are the factors that help determine who does and who doesn't finish. Then we'll look at career outcomes. The biggest part of the project is the qualitative portion, in terms of going into local high schools and community colleges and interviewing students, teachers and administration about how they're promoting these programs. The third part is we're going to go seek out industry partners with community colleges who hire graduates. We'll ask those graduates how their degree prepared them for the job, what their satisfaction is and what are their long-term prospects.
What do you hope comes of all this research?
I hope the people on the ground — the teachers, faculty, administrators and state policy makers — look at this research and see that there are a lot of students who aren't getting the opportunity to succeed. There's a lot of talent that's left on the sidelines. I want to shine more light on alternative pathways, showing that there are good, high-paying jobs in technical fields. There are jobs that can be filled by students from the Tampa Bay area to work in Tampa Bay industries. It's about keeping the talent and resources together in the area. We need technology, as a country, and these are the folks who are going to make it happen.
Kim Wilmath can be reached at email@example.com or 813-226-3337.