Preferences for STEM Subjects and Daily Life Habits among University Freshmen in Japan

Saturday, February 13, 2016
Kaede Terauchi, Collaborative Organization for Research in Women’s Education of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (CORE of STEM), Nara, Japan
Fifteen-year-old Japanese students ranked fourth on the 2012 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), part of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). In general, Japanese students are believed to have advanced math and science skills among the 65 member countries of the OECD. Nevertheless, out of the 617,500 freshmen joining all of Japan’s universities and colleges in 2015, only 151,000 will major in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields during their undergraduate careers. A recent survey on public attitudes about S&T showed that only one fifth of Japanese adults are “very interested” in new scientific discoveries, whereas more than a third of US and UK residents reported being “very interested.” Why do only a quarter of Japanese students choose STEM-related subjects? At what stages in the Japanese education system do they begin to lose interest in STEM? The authors distributed a questionnaire to more than 1,700 freshmen. Out of the participants, 840 attended the two national women’s universities, 230 studied at a national university of education (which trains teachers to work in elementary, junior high, and high schools), 450 were STEM students at a private university, and 190 belonged to one of the non-STEM departments at another private university. By applying k-means clustering, the authors categorized the students based on their responses to questions about daily life habits. For all students in each cluster, the authors analyzed the subjects that students liked and disliked in elementary school, junior high, and high school, as well as their strong and weak subjects. The authors found that regardless of the students’ various characteristics (e.g. male or female, STEM or non-STEM majors), they were able to classify all the participants into nine clusters according to their tendencies towards “sociability” (S), “interest in nature/living creatures” (N), and “interest in machinery/manufacturing” (M). Two of these clusters (S+N+M- and S+N-M-) represent students who selected non-STEM majors and dislike mathematics and science. Four (S+N+M+, S+N-M-, S-N-M+, and S-N-M-) represent students who chose STEM majors and do not dislike mathematics, and three (S+N+M+, S-N+M+, and S-N-M-) are composed of those who earned relatively high grades in both STEM and non-STEM subjects in high school. The most noticeable result is that in all clusters, the percentage of students who began to recognize mathematics/science as their weak subject(s) drastically increased as they entered high school. The authors even observed this tendency in the groups where students chose STEM majors. These findings imply some kind of barrier in Japan’s mathematics and science curricula, most notably in the transition from junior high to high school. The authors are trying to describe these barriers in detail and determine effective solutions.