Developing Student Pathways to STEM Careers

Developing Student Pathways to STEM Careers

By Heather Bell | March 23, 2022
Research Assistant II, ETR

Through ETR’s research, evaluation, and consulting, we design and support efforts to increase equity and inclusion of underrepresented youth and adults in STEM and the computing workforce. Read more on our latest project in this interview with Heather Bell, Research Assistant II on our Equity and Inclusion in STEM team.

Spencer Spotts, ETR Marketing and Communications Coordinator (SS): Heather, thank you for connecting with us and sharing out the research your team has been working on! Starting broadly, can you explain what the goals of the research were and the impact you all were hoping to have? Why was this project important? 

Heather Bell (HB): The goal of this project was to understand how to increase the number of students who study computing and information systems (CIS) and related fields such as Computer Science (CS) and Information Technology. In particular, we focused on increasing the percentage of Latinx students as they are underrepresented in both CS and CIS programs and careers.  

We worked with high schools, a community college, and a community-based organization in California to create a pathway into careers in computer information systems and IT. For our research, we interviewed students, teachers, admin, and faculty. We also issued surveys to students studying computing and looked at the course and demographic data to track students along the pathway.

We were able to share the results of our research with our partners to give them information about the students they serve. Together with our partners, we were also able to brainstorm and implement some interventions, such as presentations by college counselors in high school classrooms.  It’s not only important to create a pathway into this education/career path but to also make sure it is working well for students who might not know very much about the field to begin with. 

SS: Now that the project has concluded, what have been some of the main findings or outcomes of the research? 

HB: For me, the most meaningful finding is the importance of collaboration within and between different institutions. Everyone we have worked with cares passionately about their students and wants the best for them, but there are many points where students can drop off the pathway or miss opportunities based on administrative or logistical issues.  

We also found that supporting the students who were interested in computer science and computer information systems was more fruitful than attempting to recruit students who had no prior exposure or interest in CIS/CS into the pathway. By strengthening their support system and offering opportunities to explore their interests and build skills, students from a variety of backgrounds were able to succeed. 

SS: Ultimately, how do you all hope this research can be applied in the world? How can it be used to continue building equity and inclusion in STEM, or cybersecurity/CS careers? 

HB: This project started before COVID-19, so we were able to collect data from before and through the transition to distance learning. For that reason, some of our findings were unique to the situation. However, much of the data we collected from students were about their past experiences and education and career goals.  

What stands out to me is how motivated students can be when they are given the support and information to make their own decisions about their futures. Direct exposure to careers in STEM through speakers, internships, and hands-on activities provide easy access points for students with no prior knowledge or experience.

Future work in equity and inclusion in STEM should focus on giving students agency and creating an interconnected network of support from K-12 education to entering the workforce. Future work also needs to take into consideration that some STEM topics are completely foreign to some students and need to be presented with that in mind to not scare them away.

You can view the informational resource page developed as part of this project here.


Heather Bell (she/her/hers and they/them/theirs) is a Research Assistant supporting projects across ETR’s content areas. Her work with Equity and Inclusion in STEM projects currently focuses on the integration of computer science learning into K-12 education. They can be reached at heather.bell@etr.org.

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