Many countries have successfully increased the rate at which their college-age citizens earn Science, Technology and Math (STM) degrees. The United States has been less successful in this regard, particularly in the combined natural sciences, mathematics, computer sciences, and engineering fields that are considered critical to technological innovation. (Higher Education in Science and Engineering, Ch. 2, p. 41)
This phenomenon is especially apparent in Silicon Valley, California, where technical and scientific industries are experiencing an increasing shortage of science, technology and math graduates and professionals. San Jose State University (SJSU) is one of the major suppliers of graduates to the technical and scientific workforce of Silicon Valley. However, the College of Science at SJSU currently experiences approximately 50% attrition of students from science and engineering majors, including first year freshmen and transfer students.
In the spring of 2008, the College of Science at SJSU received a grant from the National Science Foundation aimed at increasing the retention of first year Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) students. The main components of the grant program have involved creating an integrated learning community of participating faculty, academic and career advisors, undergraduate mentors and tutors, and STEM students. One of the primary components of the grant is geared toward helping entering STEM students with academic and career advising and mentoring by university faculty, staff, and student peer mentors.
The Career Center at SJSU was invited to partner with the grant program to develop and deliver tailored career resources for first year science students. Freshmen summer orientation 2008 was targeted as a main vehicle for delivering the career interventions with science students. One of the key goals of summer orientation was to educate science students about career options in science related fields and also to help students determine if a science major was a good fit. In this way, the students become informed and excited about their major. Studies show that providing career information to STEM students helps them feel more invested in their major and can subsequently help with retention.
Developing an Intervention
In the spring of 2008, the Career Center developed resource sheets for each of the seven disciplines in the College of Science: Biological Sciences, Mathematics, Meteorology, Computer Science, Physics and Astronomy, Chemistry, and Geology. The resource sheets highlight three main components: self-assessment, career research, and tips for succeeding in a science major.
The science resource sheets allow the students to start exploring whether their major of interest is a good fit for them based on their interests, work traits, values, skills, and personality traits. It is also important for students to understand what career options are available to them and ways in which they can become involved in their major (e.g. professional associations, student groups, and the academic department websites). The following information will review the three components of the resource sheets used by Career Center staff at the College of Science New Student Orientation Resource Fair.
1. Start: Self-Assessment: Who Am I?
This first component helps students to identify interests, work traits, values, skills, and personality traits that are common to individuals who work within a specific STEM discipline. This component is interactive, listing about six words or phrases underneath each category and allowing students to check the appropriate boxes that resonate with them. For example, on the Biological Sciences resource sheet, the traits listed underneath Work Traits: Would I enjoy using these traits include: attention to detail; analytical thinking; leadership; adaptability/ flexibility. If the student did not feel that there were enough sample words listed, a link to O*Net (a federal career information database) was provided for students to look at a more comprehensive list of traits. During the summer orientation sessions, the Career Center staff member would define what the different categories meant (e.g. difference between values and personality traits) as some students expressed confusion over the terms. Comments from students included:
"Wow! This sounds a lot like me and what I like to do."
"Maybe I need to look more into Biology before making a decision. I am also interested in Mathematics - can I have that resource sheet as well?
"This was very helpful. Do you have these sheets for all colleges - I'm also thinking about Psychology?"
2. Explore: Career Research: What Do I Want to Do?
The second component lists possible career paths that students can pursue within a specified STEM major. A list of sample occupational titles is included and a box is provided for students to check careers of interest, cross out careers of non-interest, and put question marks on occupational titles that they need to research further. After students checked possible occupational titles of interest, Career Center staff highlighted online resources for conducting further exploration, such as O*Net and The Occupational Outlook Handbook (OOH), and for exploring salary information. The most common responses by students after looking at the list of occupational titles were:
"I can do all of these different things with a major in Mathematics?"
"This makes me realize that I need to learn more about what I can do. I have never heard of half of these occupations."
"You mean I can do more than teaching and research with Biology?"
3. Launch: Your Academic and Career Journey: How can I Succeed in my Major?
This final component on the resource sheets lists information on how students can become involved in their selected major department, how they can become connected with other students, and different clubs and organizations available related to the selected major. During summer orientation many students commented on this section because they were unaware of all of the different clubs and associations that were offered at SJSU and within the professional community. Comments that were stated included:
"There really are campus clubs that relate to Biology?"
"Professional Associations in Chemistry, what does that mean?"
"I didn't realize that there were specific clubs for specific majors."
These interactions with students provided the Career Center staff an opportunity to discuss the importance of professional networking, peer support groups, and becoming involved on campus. The Launch section is crucial because it allows students the opportunity to connect what they are learning in the classroom with outside activities.
Outcomes and Future Utilization of the Resource Sheets
Over 650 students received these resource sheets through freshman orientation; 350 of them spoke directly with a Career Center representative regarding the resources and another 300 took the resource sheet on their own. This demonstrates that the tool can be used independently by students as well as during a drop-in session with a Career Center professional. Following this success at orientation and feedback from College of Science students who utilized the resources, the College of Engineering has adapted the resource sheets for students interested in the various disciplines in Engineering. These new resource sheets are distributed through the College of Engineering Student Success Center. The STEM resource sheets can be found at the SJSU Career Center office and on the SJSU College of Science website (under the heading "College of Science Resource Sheets"), http://www.science.sjsu.edu/cosac/index.php?q=node/116.
Melodie Cameron, M.A., has over 5 years of experience working with special populations and over 3 years in the area of Career Counseling. Currently Melodie is a Career Consultant / Employment Specialist of a pre-employment program assisting students with disabilities on career exploration and job placement at the San Jose State University Career Center. Melodie specializes in creating career based resources to assist students in identifying their strengths and skills in relation to their career aspirations and goals. She received her M.A. in Counseling Education and B.A. in Psychology. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Lee Rosenfield, M.S., is a career consultant at the San Jose State University Career Center in San Jose, California. She specializes in career resource development and helping first-year college students with self and career exploration. She is also overseeing a Career Center partnership with a Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) Grant, aimed at increasing first-year STEM student retention. She can be reached at email@example.com.