Parents can play a key role in swelling the ranks of students pursuing careers in science, math, engineering and technology (STEM) fields, according to a new UW study published in Psychological Science.

Increasing interest in STEM fields is crucial to developing a strong 21st century U.S. workforce, but interest in science and math begins to wane in high school when students choose not to take advanced courses in those subjects, according to the study.

While most efforts to change that have focused on things schools can do to increase student interest in STEM classes, researchers at UW demonstrated the influence parents can have.

They conducted an experiment involving 181 high school students in which materials promoting the importance of math and science were sent to their parents in the fall of their 10th grade year. Another group of parents received no materials.

Over two years, the group whose parents received the materials took a semester more of advanced math and science classes than the control group.

Mothers who received the materials viewed math and science classes as more useful than mothers in the control group, and students whose parents received materials reported having more conversations about course selection than students in the control group.

Lead author and UW-Madison psychology professor Judith Harackiewicz said the study shows schools can encourage more participation in STEM courses by directly communicating options to parents.

"It’s well known that children of more educated parents take more math and science courses in high school. The effect of our intervention was just as strong as the parent education effect," Harackiewicz said. "This study shows that it is possible to help parents help their teens make academic choices that will prepare them for the future."

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Matthew DeFour covers state government and politics for the Wisconsin State Journal.