Family Factors Associated with Sixth Grade Adolescents Math and Science Career Interests - Practical Strategies for K-12 Counselors

Mathematics achievement and interests in math and science careers are critical for young people to gain entry into a wide range of scientific and technical careers. These types of careers are not often pursued by young people who have little efficacy (i.e., confidence) in their mathematics abilities or expectations for success in math based careers, even though math and science careers are often prestigious and highly rewarded. Societal messages that math is more appropriate for men and less appropriate for women also affect young people's efficacy in their math skills and abilities, and in their interests in pursuing math-based careers, with research showing that more boys than girls are interested in studying math and working in math-based careers.

Research has shown that young people who are low in math efficacy, and expectations for success in pursuing math based careers tend to make lower grades in math, choose classes that are unrelated to math, demonstrate disinterest in the math and science classes they do take, and filter their choices of college classes or careers by whether they will have to do math. Thus, these young people enter a self-perpetuating cycle, in which their lack of efficacy and lower expectations for success in math cause them to avoid math, which lessens their math preparation, which lowers their efficacy that they can be successful in math-based careers even further.

In order to investigate ways to encourage young people's entry into math and science careers, we conducted a study examining how their parents could support their interests in math and science. (Please see Turner, Steward, & Lapan, 2004). Because in our society 50% of children at some time in their lives experience living in single parent families, we also studied the effects of family structure on these factors as well.

Participants in this study were 318 middle school students from a variety of ethnic backgrounds. These students were chosen because middle school is the time when students begin to consider the math and science courses they will take in high school. The participants completed a number of survey instruments asking them to rate items related to each of the factors we were studying. After calculating the results, we found that:

(1) Compared to adolescents from single parent families, adolescents from intact families perceived more reinforcement from their fathers and mothers to pursue mathematics education and math and science careers

(2) Compared to adolescents from single parent families, adolescents from intact families had stronger perceptions that math and science careers were appropriate pursuits for persons of their own gender

(3) Adolescents who perceived that math and science careers were appropriate pursuits for persons of their gender also had greater math efficacy, and greater expectations that math would be useful and valuable to them in their future careers

(4) Both father's and mother's support for pursuing math and science careers were positively related to their adolescents' math efficacy, but mother's support was particularly important in developing their expectations for success in math related careers

(5) Both math efficacy and expectations for math success were associated with adolescents' interests in pursuing math and science careers

(6) When father and mothers worked together to support their adolescents, regardless of their marital or family status, their adolescents had greater math efficacy than when that did not happen

Based on the findings of our study, we suggest a number of interventions for counselors to assist parents in supporting their adolescents' pursuit of math and science careers.

(1) Counselors can help parents increase their adolescents' mastery of math-related skills by giving them information about activities related to math (e.g., advanced math courses, math summer camps)

(2) Counselors can help parents model math-related activities by showing their adolescents how they use math in both their careers and in their personal lives (e.g., showing them how they use computers to do inventory, or showing them how they balance their checkbooks)

(3) Counselors can help parents manage their adolescents' math-related anxiety by showing parents how to acknowledge this anxiety and assure their adolescents that these negative emotions are normal

(4) Counselors can show parents how to encourage their adolescents when they successfully accomplish math-related tasks (e.g., offering concrete praise for their accomplishments, or giving them tangible rewards)

(5) Counselors can show parents how to encourage their adolescents' persistence in math when they encounter negative or gender-biased stereotyping (e.g., by assuring them that math is valuable and important for both men and women)

(6) Counselors can help parents increase their own efficacy to support their adolescents by helping parents experience success in setting, implementing, evaluating, and adjusting explicit support goals (e.g., setting specific homework times for studying math with their adolescents, engaging a math tutor when needed, especially if they feel their own math skills are limited)

(7) Finally, counselors can encourage divorced parents to collaborate in the support of their adolescents' consideration of math and science based careers. For families in which one parent is not available, counselors can work with the custodial parent to find other adult female and male role models, such as grandmothers, grandfathers, teachers, or trusted friends, who can positively influence their middle school students' consideration of and preparation for math and science careers

Information given to parents about these types of activities and support mechanisms are an important part of career counseling. Combining the information given to adolescents with information given to their parents can help young people be successful in pursuing math and science careers.

Reference

Turner, S. L., Steward, J. C., & Lapan, R. T. (2004). Family Factors Associated With Sixth-Grade Adolescents' Math and Science Career Interests. The Career Development Quarterly, 53, 41-52.

Sherri Turner, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor at the University of Minnesota - Twin Cities where she teaches in the Counseling and Student Personnel Psychology Program. Her research and teaching centers around the career development of K-16 adolescents, and the promotion of successful counseling strategies for a variety of mental health and career-related issues.

She has published 16 peer-reviewed articles in journals such as the Journal of Vocational Behavior, Career Development Quarterly, the Journal of Career Assessmentand Professional School Counseling. She is also the author or co-author of eight book chapters, research reports, web-based articles, and counseling curriculum. She has presented her research at 19 national and regional conferences and has secured $734,000 in research support from agencies such as the U.S. Department of Education

She received her Ph.D. in counseling psychology at the University of Missouri-Columbia. She can be reached via e-mail, turne047@umn.edu

Richard Lapan, Ph.D. is Professor and Chair of the Department of Student Development and Pupil Personnel Services at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. His research interests are in school counseling and career development.

He has published 41 peer-reviewed articles in journals such as the Journal of Vocational Behavior, Career Development Quarterly, the Journal of Career Assessment and Professional School Counseling. Lapan is also the author or co-author of five book chapters and six technical manuals and wrote a textbook on career development. He has presented his research at more than 50 international, national and regional conferences and has secured more than $4 million in support from agencies such as the U.S. Department of Education and the National Science Foundation.

Lapan received his Ph.D. in counseling psychology at the University of Utah and taught at the University of Delaware for two years before joining the University of Missouri faculty.