Could Mothers Have a Hand in Influencing Their Teens to Take STEM Courses?

by Angela Repke January 23, 2018

female elementary teacher teaching students about the human body

It doesn’t feel that long ago when I sat in my trigonometry desk on the first day of school. As soon as that bell rang, the teacher handed out a worksheet. “Take a look at this,” he said. “If this seems hard to you, I strongly suggest you go see your counselor to drop this class.” At the age of 17, I simply laughed and strolled out the door and never looked back. It wasn’t until I became a mother that that teacher ticked me off. Granted, I am a creative person, a writer and an English teacher, but who’s to say that I couldn’t have pulled a B in that trigonometry class with some hard work?

Instead, I dodged math and science in college like a bullet. Now, I hope to throw my kids at math and science as long as they’re at least a little willing. Research suggests that I do. According to recent findings in The Journal of Research on Adolescence, a mother’s communication with her children can increase the likelihood of them taking math and science (MS) courses. Since President Obama launched the Educate to Innovate campaign, education in the United States has been slowly shifting toward STEM (science, technology, engineering, and technology).

The campaign urges teachers, parents, administrators, and policy makers to incorporate more STEM into their schools. As a mother who admittedly does not excel in math, it is going to be on me to encourage my children to waltz into those classrooms, even if their teachers don’t welcome them with open arms. The longitudinal study conducted interviews with mothers and students at three points – after their ninth-grade year, during their tenth-grade year, and then during final analysis of their twelfth-grade transcripts. The questionnaires analyzed 1) whether mothers were capable of discussing MS courses, 2) how well they provided guidance through personalized communication with their child, 3) if the mothers spoke differently with daughters compared to sons, 4) how frequently conversations about MS courses took place, and 5) whether they communicated about their child’s future connecting the enrollment of the MS courses.

The study demonstrated that the key for mothers is to make the MS courses personal to their children and to make connections to their future. Whether teenagers like to admit it or not, they still look to their parents for guidance, especially in the academic arena. So, fostering an open dialogue with some personalization proved to be imperative. For example, when discussing a biology course with her daughter, one mother said, “She loves animals. So, I think that it would help you understand animals, living things...our own bodies. And maybe, if you want to be a veterinary assistant, it could be a real help in your career.” Her daughter was much more excited to take a science course when she could understand its connection to her future.

The study also found that mothers did not speak differently to their daughters compared to their sons in regards to taking MS courses. They didn’t speak to them any less often about them, either. This was surprising and pleasing news for the researchers, proving that the future indeed looks bright for our daughters and their potential careers in STEM. The researches concluded that showing teenagers the great value in the MS courses was key. It made a difference when mothers discussed the courses with a personal anecdote and gave examples about how the classes could transcend into their careers. The researchers, Hyde et al said, “Parents may even be more effective than teachers at making personal connections, because parents have much more detailed knowledge of their own child’s interests, experiences, and aspirations.” Although I have little experience with advanced STEM courses, this research gave me hope.

I was born a communicator, so if all I have to do is simply talk with my children about the potential of such courses and the paths that they may lead to, I’ll gladly do it. And if a teacher gives one of my children the option to leave if a subject “seems hard,” they’ll be glued to that seat and won’t budge.

Angela Repke


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