Researchers Investigate Barriers to Education and Careers in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math

Tuesday, November 23 2010

Written by Donna Emert

MOSCOW, Idaho – Why aren’t American students as successful, or as interested, in science, technology, engineering and math as students in other parts of the world?

For the U.S., and for the global community that looks to it for innovation, it is one of the defining questions of the modern era.

Like the rest of the nation and the world, Micron has a vested interested in answering that question.

This summer, the Micron Foundation awarded University of Idaho a $1.2 million gift to support social science research for developing a better understanding of the barriers to science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) learning and careers in Idaho.

The new STEM Educational Research Initiative takes an interdisciplinary approach to analyzing current barriers that hinder STEM education, and provides insights into how cultural, socio-economic and geographical factors impact students’ participation in the STEM disciplines. Ultimately, the research findings will shape STEM teacher preparation, curriculum development and parent education, and help communities implement other interventions.

“Specifically, we are investing in a multi-methods, longitudinal, statewide research design that will provide comprehensive understanding of local community and statewide barriers that limit our STEM competitiveness,” said Debbie Storrs, associate dean of the College of Letters, Arts and Social Sciences, professor of Sociology and a lead investigator in the research.

“Such information will help Micron, the University of Idaho and other institutions to intervene in effective ways and increase our STEM achievement in Idaho,” said Storrs.

The project reaches across disciplines with researchers from the College of Education, College of Engineering, College of Science, College of Letters, Arts and Social Science, and College of Agricultural and Life Sciences participating.

The researchers will engage with 12 Idaho school districts and communities. This month MOU's are being signed. Researchers expect that process to be finalized by December.

The researchers have tested their focus group questions using pilot focus groups in Moscow and with Spanish speaking parents in Southern Idaho. Once questions are proven viable, the study will begin.

“We will first engage in qualitative research involving focus groups in 12 different communities in spring of 2011,” said Storrs. “A total of 36 focus groups will be conducted, three in each district, one each composed of parents, teachers and community members.”

The data collected will provide in-depth and nuanced information on local factors that shape STEM achievement and interest across the state of Idaho. Analysis of focus group data will inform a broader, statewide survey to be conducted in fall 2011. Researchers also will use a self-administered pencil-and-paper survey of randomly selected group of teachers, students and their parents in grades 4, 7, 10 and 12.

The student study will be repeated with the same individuals two years later to track how students’ perceptions of STEM fields change as they progress through school.

“Few studies have looked at student performance in STEM fields from so many angles, including not only their educational setting, but also their family and cultural context," said Stephanie Kane, project manager of the Social Science Research Unit. "This study is going to be fairly unique in that respect.”

The university’s interdisciplinary social science research team includes Anne Kern, College of Education; Leontina Hormel, sociology and anthropology, College of Letters, Arts and Social Sciences; John Mihelich, sociology and anthropology, College of Letters, Arts and Social Sciences; Brant Miller, College of Education; Barbara Foltz and Stephanie Kane, Social Science Research Unit, College of Agricultural and Life Sciences; Storrs; and graduate assistant, Michelle Howard, geography, College of Science.

Supporting the social scientists are a team of faculty from math, science and engineering, including Larry Stauffer, engineering; Rob Ely, mathematics; Karen Humes, geography; and Rick Fletcher, chemistry. The supporting team provides needed expertise in STEM fields.

The STEM Educational Research Initiative is directed by Jerry McMurtry, associate dean in the College of Graduate Studies.

“The social science research data analysis will provide specific insights on the complex factors that shape students' interests and achievement in STEM,” said McMurty. “The findings will allow local communities, the state, higher education and Idaho industries to invest in specific interventions and actions to improve Idaho STEM achievement.”

For more information on the objectives and methodology of the study, visit
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About the University of Idaho

Founded in 1889, the University of Idaho is the state’s land-grant institution and its principal graduate education and research university, bringing insight and innovation to the state, the nation and the world. University researchers attract nearly $100 million in research grants and contracts each year. The University of Idaho is the only institution in the state to earn the prestigious Carnegie Foundation classification for high research activity. The student population of 12,302 includes first-generation college students and ethnically diverse scholars, who select from more than 130 degree options in the colleges of Agricultural and Life Sciences; Art and Architecture; Business and Economics; Education; Engineering; Law; Letters, Arts and Social Sciences; Natural Resources; and Science. The university also is charged with the statewide mission for medical education through the WWAMI program. The university combines the strength of a large university with the intimacy of small learning communities and focuses on helping students to succeed and become leaders. It is home to the Vandals, the 2009 Roady’s Humanitarian Bowl champions. For more information, visit

About the University of Idaho
The University of Idaho helps students to succeed and become leaders. Its land-grant mission furthers innovative scholarly and creative research to grow Idaho's economy and serve a statewide community. From its main campus in Moscow, Idaho, to 70 research and academic locations statewide, U-Idaho emphasizes real-world application as part of its student experience. U-Idaho combines the strength of a large university with the intimacy of small learning communities. It is home to the Vandals. For information, visit