Gen Z needs more hands-on STEM experience, poll shows

While 75 percent of Gen Z youth are interested in science, technology, engineering and math-centered careers, only about 29 percent list a STEM role as their first-choice career, according to the results of a Gallup and Walton Family Foundation poll released in December.

Despite the ongoing push for young people to consider jobs in STEM, the poll of more than 2,000 youth suggests issues related to a lack of exposure to core STEM concepts, especially for female members of Gen Z, is partially to blame for the lack of serious interest.

“There have been significant, impactful investments in STEM education, but even more is needed to ensure students move beyond interest and actually explore careers in STEM,” Stephanie Marken, Gallup partner and executive director for education research, said in a statement. “By creating programs that allow students the opportunity to explore, understand and apply core STEM concepts and to participate in hands-on learning, we can set youth up for successful careers in an industry that desperately needs them.”

Past studies have shown that exposure to STEM curriculum throughout a child’s K-12 career is associated with an increased likelihood of pursuing a job in the field. Students exposed to four or five technology-related topics in school are 2.6 times more likely to want a future STEM job, 2.2 times more likely to declare a college STEM major and 5.3 times more likely to be employed in a STEM role than their peers who are exposed to just one technology-related topic or none at all, according to research cited in the Gallup/Walton report.

Key findings

For many respondents, researchers found that limited exposure to foundational STEM concepts in school may be contributing to the drop-off between students’ interest in and eventual pursuit of STEM jobs.

While 82 percent of students said their school offered a variety of STEM classes for real-world applications in math and science principles, and 72 percent reported having opportunities to participate in STEM extracurriculars, hands-on experience was often lacking.

Just 29 percent have engaged in hands-on STEM classroom activities such as building an electrical circuit, while 42 percent have used technology like coding programs or robots — skills that researchers note underlie many STEM jobs. Similarly, only about a third of respondents reported having learned about core STEM-related topics, including 3D design (31 percent), cybersecurity (23 percent) or hydraulics (32 percent).

Gender disparities in STEM experiences and messaging may also be creating barriers that deter Gen Z girls and women in from the field. Just 63 percent of female respondents reported interested in STEM fields compared to 85 percent of their male counterparts, and fewer females than males report learning about technical STEM concepts such as computer programming and coding in their coursework (39 percent vs. 54 percent respectively).

When asked why they are not interested in a STEM career, 57 percent of female respondents said they don’t think they would be good at it, compared with 38 percent of males.

Boosting the rates of interest, confidence and hands-on experiences will require more than schools can provide alone, however. “Creating access to equitable and hands-on STEM experiences is key to helping inspire and prepare today’s youth to claim their positions among the next generation of innovators and ultimately fuel a more skilled and inclusive future workforce,” said Dawn Jones, vice president of Social Impact and chief diversity and inclusion officer at Intel Corporation. “Ensuring access to STEM learning opportunities for all youth is a cornerstone of our country’s future, and we cannot get there without all of us, from policymakers and educators to business and industry leaders, working together to make this possible.”