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Social Networks Key to Sticking with STEM

October 22, 2020

Looking for job security?  Look no further than STEM, where jobs are projected to grow by more than 8 percent through 2030, with cybersecurity and biomedical, civil and environmental engineering at greatest risk of labor shortages. 

Turning young people onto science, technology, engineering and math has been challenging, especially with the best high schools devoted to STEM historically reserved for only the “gifted and talented.”

A broader swath of young people, including racial minorities and the socially disadvantaged, may have more opportunities to pursue STEM through an emerging and “rapidly expanding” movement to provide all-inclusive STEM schools, according to new research in Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences.

These ISTEMs, explains researcher Guan K. Saw in “Leveraging Social Capital to Broaden Participation in STEM,” turn students onto STEM in part because they provide students with more opportunities to build relationships, or “social capital,” with both peers and professionals interested in STEM.

Relationships, at their most basic level, can be characterized as either horizontal and vertical, he says, the horizontal being our closest relationships, usually with peers and family members, and the vertical with teachers and professors as well as with STEM professionals. 

The value of relationships in encouraging young people to pursue STEM is shown over and over.  He cites one study finding high school girls were more likely to take advanced math courses after being enrolled in a course with other girls who have taken higher-level math.  In another, Black students were more likely to engage in STEM if their math and science teachers were Black.

Saw builds upon the horizontal and vertical relationships, adding structural and cognitive associations.  Structural might include involvement in an after-school STEM club, where students are able to expand their friendships with like-minded and STEM-focused peers.  Cognitive might involve “parents having high expectations (norms) for STEM learning,” he says–adding that parental involvement in science at home and at school has been shown to positively impact students’ grades in science.

Saw visualizes these relationships on a two-dimensional plane, creating what he describes as “a novel … framework for characterizing social capital in STEM education.”

Using the framework as a guide, Saw proposes policies to help students enhance their social capital.  These include finding additional ways to pair students with STEM educators or professionals, training these professionals in providing effective mentorship programs, and partnering schools with industries to give students a chance to shadow professionals in real-world STEM settings.


Saw receives funding support from the National Science Foundation, the American Educational Research Association and the Grants for Research Advancement and Transformation program from the Research, Economic Development and Knowledge Enterprise at the University of Texas at San Antonio.

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