Does language push immigrants kids toward STEM?

(Credit: Getty Images)

US immigrant children study more math and science in high school and college, which leads to a greater presence in STEM careers, according to new research.

“Most studies on the assimilation of immigrants focus on the language disadvantage of non-English-speaking immigrants,” says Marcos Rangel, assistant professor at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy. “We focus instead on the comparative strength certain immigrant children develop in numerical subjects, and how that leads to majoring in STEM subjects in college.”

About 20 percent of US-born college students major in STEM subjects. Yet those numbers are much higher among immigrants—particularly among those who arrive the US after age 10, and who come from countries whose native languages are dissimilar to English, Rangel says. Within that group, 36 percent major in STEM subjects.

“Some children who immigrate to the US, particularly older children from a country where the main language is very dissimilar to English, quite rationally decide to build on skills they are relatively more comfortable with, such as math and science,” says Rangel.

Those older immigrant children take more math and science courses in high school, the authors say. Immigrant children arriving after age 10 earn approximately 20 percent more credits in math-intensive courses than they do in English-intensive courses.

This focus continues in college, where immigrant children are more likely to pursue science, technology, engineering, and math majors. Those majors, in turn, lead to careers in STEM fields. Immigrants are more highly represented in many STEM careers, according to previous research.

“Meaningful differences in skill accumulation… shape the consequent contributions of childhood immigrants to the educated labor force,” the authors, including Ying Shi from Stanford University, write.

The researchers drew from nationally representative datasets including the 2010-2016 waves of the American Community Survey, the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, and the National Survey of College Graduates.

The study appears online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The Early Childhood Initiative at the Duke Center for Child and Family Policy and the Institute for Education Services funded the study.

Source: Duke University