ERIC Identifier: ED435950
Publication Date: 1999-00-00
Author: Shoffner, Marie F. - Vacc, Nancy N.
Clearinghouse on Counseling and Student Services Greensboro NC.
Careers in the Mathematical Sciences: The Role of the School
Counselor. ERIC Digest.
"The more things change, the more they remain the same." This old cliche
seems to have much relevance today as it concerns individuals selecting one of
the mathematical sciences, including engineering and computer science, as a
career choice. Although there has been an increase in career options in the
mathematical sciences due to the recent advances in technology and its
applications, the number of individuals selecting a career in this field has
changed very little.
Based on research, selecting a career involves a process that includes a
person's background, personal qualities, motivation, and environment (Farmer,
1987). Therefore, if the number of individuals seeking a career in one of the
mathematical sciences is to increase, efforts are needed to influence these
factors beginning in the early school years. Some statistics that have a bearing
on the importance of attracting children to the mathematical sciences include
the following: (a) nearly 75% of tomorrow's jobs will require the use of
computers; (b) 34% of high-school-age girls reported being advised by a faculty
member to not take senior mathematics; (c) African Americans make up 12% of the
population but only 2% of all employed scientists and engineers; (d) Hispanics
comprise 9% of our population but only 2% of the individuals employed in science
and engineering, (e) Native Americans make up .6% of the population but only .5%
of all employed scientists and engineers, and (f) European-American women
represent 43% of the population but only 10% of all scientists and engineers
(North Central Regional Educational Laboratory, 1999). Is the problem of a small
number of individuals selecting a career in the mathematical sciences caused by
a negative attitude toward mathematics or by limited exposure to extracurricular
activities in mathematical sciences, or is the problem the result of children
lacking career information?
While we started this paper with the cliche that as things change, they
remain the same, we believe that this may be the best time ever to encourage
young people to select careers in the mathematical sciences. In large part, this
is due to recent changes in the way that the mathematics curriculum is being
approached in the United States. The current view of the mathematics paradigm
has moved away from a focus on facts and computation to a focus on mathematics
as problem-solving. This revised approach to teaching and learning mathematics
emphasizes the mental processes involved in doing mathematics and in part
focuses on children's prior knowledge, out-of-school experiences, and informal
mathematics knowledge. This provides a much more engaging and interesting
approach in the mathematics curriculum. As a result, we are now at a threshold
whereby we can engage children in mathematics instruction in a way that
encourages them to select one of the mathematical sciences as an occupation.
In order for change to occur, however, several conditions are necessary.
First, there must be an increased focus on the paradigm of problem solving in
mathematics and a movement away from the traditional curriculum of drill and
practice. Second, there needs to be an effort to provide teachers with
professional development concerning the goals of instruction, student learning,
and their own beliefs about the mathematical sciences. Third, individuals who
have a stake in a child's development need to help reform the current state of
low involvement in the mathematical sciences, especially since preparation in
mathematics is becoming increasingly important in many professional fields.
Major contributors to this effort are school counselors, who are in a unique
position to help increase the possibility of students selecting one of the
mathematical sciences as a career. The various efforts that can be made in this
area are presented below.
ROLE OF THE SCHOOL COUNSELOR
There are two inadvertent
biases that may affect students as they think about their potential careers in
the mathematical sciences: 1. that careers in mathematics are only for those
with outstanding mathematics potential, and 2. that various demographic factors
(e.g., gender and ethnicity) predetermine mathematics achievement and
appropriate career choice. Counselors can intervene in various ways: 1. They can
reduce these inadvertent biases by assisting in maintaining a balance between
the mathematical preparation of all students and encouraging only a select few
to take higher level mathematics courses (Peterson, 1993). 2. Counselors can
assist teachers to critically examine their relations with students and help
them provide opportunities for all students in their mathematics courses
(Davenport, 1994). This, in turn, can affect student attitudes toward future
careers in the mathematical sciences, as well as students' beliefs regarding
their abilities to achieve in mathematics. 3. Counselors can facilitate the
infusion of career exploration and knowledge of the mathematical sciences into
all course content beginning in kindergarten. Encouraging teachers to provide
opportunities for students to increase their awareness of potential careers in
mathematics can help reduce the biases which students may have about mathematics
School counselors also can help increase family collaboration by working
closely with parents to increase family-school communication, and by providing
parents with the skills and attitudes necessary to encourage their children to
make appropriate career choices. Parents' beliefs about mathematics influence
children's beliefs. For example, parents with mathematics-related anxiety who
are working with their children on mathematics homework will directly impact the
comfort level of their children toward mathematics, and thus toward a career in
the mathematical sciences.
When working with students in classrooms, small groups, or individually,
school counselors can utilize a process of intervention that focuses on general
skills and attitudes, career education, and mathematics. For example, counselors
can help to coordinate activities that focus on skills and attitudes related to
mathematics. As Lee (1993) found, integrating a classroom guidance unit on
school success into the school curriculum can result in significant gains in
mathematics scores. School counselors also can work with students to address
confidence, self-assurance, self-worth, and positive attitudes (Fouad, 1995).
Together with teachers and parents, school counselors can be instrumental in
increasing the self-efficacy beliefs of youth regarding their ability to succeed
with higher level course content, and to pursue careers in mathematics. One way
to achieve this is to provide children and adolescents with successful
experiences and role models beginning as early as kindergarten (e.g., bringing
in adults with careers in one of the mathematical sciences to talk about their
work and educational background).
Counselors also can work with students to increase their decision-making
skills and their ability to generalize problem-solving skills to multiple types
of challenges. In addition, counselors can encourage all educators to make a
concerted effort to increase students' connections to counselors, teachers, and
other adults who can provide guidance in preparing them for the future by
providing support networks such as clubs, tutoring, and mentoring for students,
especially those representing under-represented groups.
School counselors play a critical role in providing appropriate career
education and guidance for all youth. Beginning early in a student's academic
life, the connection between what is being learned in school and future careers
and life roles should become an explicit part of everyday learning in the
schools. School counselors can be instrumental in encouraging career
aspirations, providing accurate information about local and national labor
trends to help students make better informed choices, and offering opportunities
for students to learn about careers in mathematics from under-represented groups
employed in the mathematical sciences. By the middle of high school, students
should possess some degree of occupational knowledge as well as information
regarding the competencies and education needed for various career paths.
Therefore, prior to this time, it is important that school counselors discuss
and explore issues of bias and under-representation in mathematics with
students. Counselors also can provide career investigation and decision-making
activities so that these various interventions can be placed in the context of
individual abilities and interests.
In specifically targeting careers in the mathematical sciences, school
counselors can provide guidance and counseling to address perceptions, support,
attitudes, and achievement. Thus, counselors, together with teachers, parents,
and administrators can help students increase their awareness of the value of
mathematics. In middle and high school, counselors can ensure that all students
are exposed to high-level mathematics by increasing mathematics course choices
and achievement. Lack of career guidance is often stated as the reason behind
poorly informed post-secondary and career decisions (Fouad, 1995). Relatedly,
due to the nature of most mathematics curricula, students who forego certain
mathematics courses have a difficult time reentering a mathematics career path
(Rayman & Brett, 1993). Therefore, assisting students in selecting
appropriate mathematics courses, and following an appropriate curriculum is
vital to ensuring that educational and career options are not foreclosed too
Clearly, school counselors are in the important position of helping to
increase the number of students who select one of the mathematical sciences as a
career option. The activities suggested above are a means through which
counselors can begin to initiate this needed change.
Davenport, L. R. (1994). Promoting interest in
mathematics careers among girls and women: The mathematics outlook. (ERIC
Document Reproduction Service No. ED 406 137).
Farmer, H. S. (1987). A multivariate model for explaining gender differences
in career and achievement motivation. Educational Researcher, 16, 5-9.
Fouad, N. A. (1995). Career linking: An intervention to promote math and
science career awareness. Journal of Counseling and Development, 73, 527-534.
Lee, R. S. (1993). Effects of classroom guidance on student achievement.
Elementary School Guidance and Counseling, 27, 163-171.
North Central Regional Educational Laboratory. (1999). Disproportionate
number of women, minorities, and the poor [On-line]. Available
Peterson, M. P. (1993). Mathematics and science skill shortage: It's
counselor-bashing time again. The School Counselor, 40, 244-246.
Rayman, P. & Brett, B. (1993). Pathways for Women in the Sciences.
Wellesley: Wellesley College Center for Research on Women.