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DOCTORAL RESEARCH

“We keep moving forward, opening new doors, and doing new things, because we're curious and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.”

 

Walt Disney

The STEM Gap:  Perceptions on Reasons Why Female Human Ecology Students Change Majors

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (2021), jobs in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) are projected to make up a significant portion of the United States workforce during the next decade. While the literature indicates that today's college students are recruited into STEM degree programs, it is also true that many leave or change their field of study. This is especially true for women and minorities who remain underrepresented. Thus, while STEM is a growing career option the number of women in these professions remains less than the number of men, resulting in a significant gender gap.  

The STEM workforce is broad. It covers domains including life sciences, physical sciences, engineering, mathematics, computer sciences, social sciences, and health sciences. In this report, I will focus on the life, social and health sciences. This qualitative study will address the environment and sense of belonging of female human ecology students attending a southern U.S. research university. The mission of the School of Human Ecology (SoHE) is to improve quality of life through research and education in four areas: Nutrition (the food we eat); Human Development and Family Studies (the relationships we nurture); Public Health (the well-being of our populations and community); and Textiles and Apparel (the materials that clothe and protect us).  To examine female SoHE students' perceptions and the reasons why they leave STEM programs, I will use the social cognitive career (SCC) theory. This theoretical framework focuses primarily on how a person thinks and learns about their career and how this pattern of thinking influences their career development decisions.

I will look at how female students' career interests in STEM are developed, how they make their career choices, whether they are satisfied with the educational choices they have made, and how they navigate their career choices. I will focus my investigation on four contextual factors that have been examined in previous research using SCC theory: social and institutional support; sense of belonging to the college and its STEM program; self-efficacy; and career expectations. My two specific research questions are: 1) How do female SoHE students describe their choice to leave their original STEM programs or change majors? and 2) What strategies should a human ecology STEM program implement to advocate for female STEM students in terms of assuring their retention, persistence, and degree completion?

Higher education institutions and policymakers need to better understand their students' academic and nonacademic motivations for changing majors. If colleges are to retain more students in their STEM degree programs, they must understand who is leaving STEM and why and then work to address and alleviate these concerns. Through this study, I aim to better understand how female students at the University of Texas at Austin feel about the School of Human Ecology and determine how the university community can better help them succeed.