Not Seeing Themselves in STEM Careers, 48% of Students Don't Realize They Are Already Great Scientists, According to a New MilliporeSigma Survey

Apr 9, 2024 9:00 AM ET
  • Middle schoolers are naturally curious and show interest in STEM, but don’t recognize the career possibilities
  • Lack of knowledge is a factor as parents discourage students from STEM careers

When you think of a scientist, what comes to mind? Today’s scientists are far from the stereotypical male in a white lab coat with a pocket protector. In fact, middle schoolers are all about STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) — and its coolness — without even realizing it: they love to create, tinker and discover. Nearly two in three middle school students have dreamed about a career that uses science or math. However, this interest is not translating as it should into STEM careers, with 48% of middle schoolers finding it hard to see themselves as scientists, according to a new global survey from MilliporeSigma, the U.S. and Canada Life Science business of Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany, a leading science and technology company.

Children are already natural scientists and budding engineers, as their favorite activities include building things (56%), exploring (52%) and taking toys apart (34%). Middle schoolers enjoy STEM-related classes, with most calling math and science fun (60%) and exciting (57%).

Parents surveyed also struggle to see the connection between the STEM activities children love and a future career. Despite growing opportunities in STEM fields, more than three in five parents (63%) would discourage their child from a STEM career.

The lack of knowledge may explain parents’ doubts, as almost a third (28%) of parents would discourage the pursuit because they’re unaware of the vast range of career options available. In addition, close to a quarter (23%) worry a STEM career would be too challenging and 21% are daunted by the education required.

“We need a strong and inclusive STEM pipeline of problem solvers, critical thinkers and collaborators to tackle global challenges. The survey data confirms that kids’ interest in STEM is there, and they enjoy pursuits that nurture the curious side of their brains. The challenge lies in linking their enthusiasm to the vast and diverse career possibilities in STEM,” said Tim Jaeger, Chief Strategy and Transformation Officer for the Life Science business of Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany. “We bridge that gap by showing students and their parents that there’s a place for everyone in STEM and the opportunities are far broader than the outdated perception of a scientist. We do that by continuing to showcase how STEM powers the world around them with hands-on learning and other everyday experiences, and highlighting diverse role models that kids can see themselves reflected in.”

Other key findings include:

STEM gender gap may begin at home

Boys are more likely to want to be a scientist when they grow up (21%) compared to girls (16%). This difference may begin at home. Parents are more likely to see their sons in STEM careers than their daughters: more than half (54%) think their sons are best suited for a STEM career, compared to just 46% of parents of daughters.

Parents put responsibility for STEM education on educators 

Children today have a lot of direct and indirect exposure to STEM. In fact, nearly three in four parents (72%) believe their children have more opportunities to engage in STEM than they did. But who should bear the responsibility for exposing kids to STEM activities and careers? More than half of parents (56%) put the responsibility mostly on their children’s teachers and four in five (83%) think schools don’t do enough to expose students to potential STEM careers. While most parents (96%) give their child’s school a passing grade of a “C” or above in how they expose kids to STEM, nearly two in three parents do not give the school an “A.”

Students say educators, not parents, get them more excited about STEM

More than half (57%) of students say teachers get them more excited about math and science than their parents. An overwhelming majority of students (92%) report doing hands-on activities that involve science or math with their teachers.

Parents can play a great role fostering an interest in STEM 

Nearly four in five parents face challenges embracing STEM outside of school and a quarter don’t even know where to start. However, many are already fostering an interest in STEM through the everyday activities they are currently doing with their children: by watching science television shows (59%), exploring real-world examples (58%) and building toys (52%).

Sparking curiosity in the next generation of scientists

To encourage students to connect their STEM curiosity to potential career options, MilliporeSigma helps bridge the gap with its employee and community engagement programs. These initiatives assist educators in providing hands-on STEM learning opportunities and illustrate diverse career options for their students. Through its SPARK global employee volunteer program, the company focuses on skills-based volunteer opportunities centered around science education, which aim to increase access to hands-on STEM learning. This includes its Curiosity Labs program, in which employees go into classrooms and conduct interactive experiments with a class, and its Curiosity Cube, a retrofitted shipping container turned mobile science lab that launched in 2017, which brings students out of the classroom and into the lab, reaching even more future scientists and their families. To ensure hands-on STEM experiences for those who may not have access to these opportunities, the company prioritizes selecting schools and locations to reach students in underserved and under-resourced communities. Since its inception in 2016, SPARK has positively impacted more than 387,000 visitors in 46 countries around the world.

In addition, the company has established partnerships with nonprofit organizations committed to science education, focusing on investments in science centers and museums, teacher preparation and advocacy, and direct-to-student programs.

Survey methodology

The survey was conducted by Wakefield Research among 1,450 middle school students aged 11 to 13 and 1,450 parents of middle school students aged 11 to 13 in the United States, United Kingdom, France, Germany, India, Canada and Ireland between January 8 and 16, 2024, using an email invitation and an online survey.