A recent national study indicating boys’ declining interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics careers is a problematic trend, said the president of a central Illinois group that creates job opportunities for students.

Science, technology, engineering and mathematics, known as STEM, lessons can be found in area classrooms. Activities actively engage students and can develop a set of thinking, reasoning, team-work, investigative and creative skills that students can use in all areas of their lives. 

The national study conducted Feb. 27 through March 6 on behalf of Junior Achievement of Central Illinois and Ernst and Young, LLP revealed that boys’ interest in STEM careers are declining and girls’ interest is unchanged from the previous year. Those who participated in the online survey were 13 to 17 years old.

The study found boys’ interest went down from 36-percent in 2017 to 24-percent in 2018, which was considered a “significant drop.” Girls’ interest stayed the same at 11 percent from last year to this year.

The study also found among boys and girls, the desire for careers in the arts dropped from 18 percent to 13 percent. However, careers in medical and dental fields increased from 15 percent to 19 percent, with girls far more likely to choose this path. The interest in public service careers also increased.

Mary Pille, president of Junior Achievement, said this is a problematic trend because of a growing need for workers right out of high school.

“I thought a lot of these shifts are interesting,” said Pille. “Millennials are more likely to do service work, volunteer and they are willing to do that themselves. There’s data that shows that millennials are more likely to work for a company that sees volunteering as important and provides that opportunity. One thing we can do is to have a volunteer in a STEM related field go and share valuable information as to what it means to be in the STEM field. Job shadowing would also be helpful.”

She said STEM related careers include jobs such as biologist, chemist, engineer and those in the service sector like finance, insurance, banking and data analysis. Local students possibly have an advantage with all the area hospitals with their increasing growth and demand for employees by taking advantage of opportunities. Pille said she has personally heard about the growth and demand from people in human resources at hospitals.

The technology component of STEM probably has the most opportunity for career growth, Pille said. 

“It’s everywhere,” she said. “There’s technology in jobs. STEM fields are spilling over to other fields you might not think of like retail with data tracking and computer systems.”

Pille said that in the past, STEM careers have typically had more males than females. There is a national effort to get girls more interested with programs like Girls Who Code, which has a mission of closing the gender gap in technology.

There are several ways Junior Achievement tries to create opportunity for students. One is with the career expo for eighth graders held at the Peoria Civic Center in October. It is free for students and provides them with a chance to see and try hands-on activities in a variety of fields including STEM.

A second way is through a project it has with Alignment Peoria to provide students with a field trip every year to explore a new career opportunity each year. Alignment Peoria is an organization with a mission of aligning diverse community resources in support of Peoria Public Schools in order to raise student achievement, improve the health and happiness of children and advance the economic and social well-being of the community.

The other way is having Junior Achievement volunteers come into classrooms from kindergarten through high school seniors. The national survey also found that 81 percent of teens would take a work/financial readiness class if it was offered to them. Junior Achievement provides that opportunity.

Pille said there are over 600 volunteers from a variety of backgrounds in Junior Achievement and that they impacted a record 16,000 students over the six-county region during the last school year.

“A lot of intentional work is being done at an early age,” Pille said. “We teach financial literacy to students early on, and it’s important. We feel like we could help a family end the cycle of poverty. We need three things to be successful with our programs: willing teachers who allow us to be part of their curriculum, a pool of volunteers, and financial resources because we are a non-profit and we don’t charge schools.”

She said they welcome volunteers, and anyone wanting to get involved should call the Junior Achievement office, located at 508 High Point Lane in East Peoria, at 682-1800.