Important Research on the Role Parents Play in Children’s STEM Success

Important Research on the Role Parents Play in Children’s STEM Success

Proficiency in STEM skills is seen as a key component for success in the 21st century workplace. Yet observers note an achievement gap in STEM education and careers, with white males leading the way and members of other groups falling behind. This issue is so troubling that the US Department of Education has set achieving equality in STEM education as a main priority.

One way to encourage more diversity in STEM fields is to involve parents in their child’s STEM education. In fact, the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) feels so strongly about parents playing an active role in STEM education that they issued a position statement on the topic. This statement suggests that even simple actions from parents, such as encouraging children to ask questions or playing with children outdoors, can go a long way toward a child’s success in STEM education.

Several research studies have investigated the relationship between parent involvement, student learning in STEM, and career paths in STEM. Read on to learn about some key findings.


Student Motivation


In 2017, the National Academy of Sciences published a paper investigating parental involvement in student motivation to study STEM disciplines and later pursue a STEM career. In the study, a group of parents were given two brochures and access to a website that discussed the importance of STEM education. The parents also learned strategies for talking about these materials with their children.

The researchers found that students whose parents read the brochures and website and discussed the material with them were likely to be motivated to take one more semester of a STEM course than students whose parents did not receive access to the brochures and website. The researchers also found that math and science ACT scores of students whose parents discussed the brochures and website with them were approximately 12 points higher.

Additionally, the researchers found that the positive effects lingered beyond high school. Students whose parents had discussed the brochures and websites with them were more likely to take STEM courses in college and be motivated to pursue a STEM career afterwards. The researchers concluded that one successful method for increasing the number of people pursuing STEM careers is to focus on parental involvement in children’s STEM education.


Women in STEM

In 2017, researchers at the University of Michigan and the University of Arkansas released a working paper that investigates causes for the gender gap in college-level STEM education. These researchers studied data from national surveys to determine whether girls’ perceived abilities in math, tested abilities in math, and decisions about pursuing a STEM major in college were related to their parents’ careers.

When they analyzed the data, the researchers found that girls believed their abilities in math were lower, tested lower in math, and chose to pursue a STEM major in college less often. However, the researchers found different results for girls with at least one parent working in a STEM field.

Although girls with a parent working in a STEM field did not appear to think differently about their math abilities, they had higher math test scores and were more likely to choose a STEM major. The researchers concluded that having a parent who works in a STEM field could benefit girls by providing them with a role model for success.


Math Anxiety


A 2015 publication from the Association for Psychological Science reveals the negative effects parents can have on their children’s performance in math. Although studies often mention the positive effects parents can have on children’s STEM education, this study points out that the opposite can also occur.

In this study, the researchers surveyed parents about their math anxiety and how often they help their children with math homework. The researchers also collected information about the first- and second-grade children of these parents, focusing on their levels of math anxiety and math performance.

The researchers found that when parents reported high levels of math anxiety and also helped their children with math homework frequently, the children developed high levels of math anxiety over the school year. Additionally, the researchers found these children also had lower scores in math performance over the school year.

Interestingly, the researchers found that when parents reported high levels of math anxiety but didn’t help their children with math homework frequently, the children did not develop math anxiety and did not have lower math scores. The researchers concluded that math anxiety and performance are not related to genetic factors, but rather are learned behaviors.

Rather than suggest that parents with math anxiety not help their children with math homework, the researchers cite educational research that suggests involved parents are beneficial to student success. They recommend parents receive tools and other support so they can more confidently help their children with math homework.