Social class and the STEM career pipeline an ethnographic investigation of opportunity structures in a high-poverty versus affluent high school
Nikischer, Andrea B.
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This research investigates science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) high school opportunity structures, including student experiences with math and science course sequences and progress, college guidance and counseling, and STEM extracurricular activities (Weis and Eisenhart, 2009), specifically related to STEM fields and career and college choice, for top-performing math and science students. Differences in these structures and processes as they play out in two representative high schools that vary by social class and racial/ethnic makeup are examined. This comparative ethnography includes 36 school and classroom observations, 56 semi-structured individual interviews, and a review of relevant documents, all gathered during the focal students' junior year of high school. Three data chapters are presented, discussing three distinct, yet interconnected themes. In the first, I examine the ways in which chronic attendance problems and classroom distractions negatively impact math and science instruction time and lead to an instruction (time) deficit. In the second, I compare the math and science course and extra-curricular offerings at each school, and discuss the significant differences between sites regarding available STEM exposure and experience, also known as "STEM educational dose" (Wai, et al., 2010). In the third, I investigate available guidance counseling services and STEM and college-linking at each site. Perceived failures in the counseling services available are discussed. This dissertation is grounded in the literature on differences in academic achievement based on school setting, the nature/distribution of knowledge based on social class, and STEM opportunity structures. The concepts of "social capital" and "STEM capital" are engaged throughout. Ultimately, I argue through this dissertation that segregation by race, and most importantly social class, both between and within districts, damages the STEM pipeline for high-performing math and science students located in high-poverty, low-performing schools. I further argue that both federal and state accountability-based school reform efforts are failing to improve outcomes for students with proficiency and interest in STEM learning and STEM fields, and in fact, these reforms are harming top performing students and high school STEM opportunity structures. Recommendations for changes in policy and practice, and for further research, are provided.