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Science, tech fields await high school grads

High schoolers are increasingly focused on pursuing STEM studies in college

Robert Treiber, a Medfield High School lacrosse star, is planning to study electrical engineering at Tufts University.

Photos by David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Robert Treiber, a Medfield High School lacrosse star, is planning to study electrical engineering at Tufts University.

MEDFIELD — The high school class of 2014 is taking selfies on stage at graduation and using social networks to make summer plans. So it is no wonder they are also flocking to college majors that could lead to careers in high technology.

In high schools around the country, more departing seniors are electing to study computer science, mathematics, engineering, and science in college than graduates of just a few years ago. That trend is especially pronounced in Medfield, where 27 percent of seniors who declared college majors have chosen a high-tech track, up from 19 percent for the class of 2007.

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Combined, the declared majors for science, technology, engineering, and math now surpass the traditional stronghold of business. Meanwhile, the number of Medfield students who selected humanities majors plummeted from 12 percent to 5 percent between 2007 and 2014.

“It got to the point this year where so many kids were saying they wanted to study engineering that I started asking, ‘Do you even know what engineering is?’ ” said Heather Mandosa, who heads the school’s guidance department.

A generation ago, technical subjects such as computer science used to be the province of a few bright kids. But as technology has become increasingly easier to use, and is the lens through which teens view popular culture, a future spent writing software or building robots seems natural, not nerdy, to kids who grew up with YouTube and Twitter.

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“It’s definitely the trendy thing to do,” said Rachel Thornton, a Medfield High School grad who plans to study computer science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “It means you’re smart and hip and in touch with technology, which is such a big part of our lives now.”

But there is more than a cultural shift in play. The increase also reflects the emphasis that school and business leaders have been placing on better preparing students for a future in which virtually every occupation has embraced technology, from authors self-publishing e-books to musicians using online videos to snag recording contracts.

‘It’s definitely the trendy thing.’

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Local technology leaders say the statistics show that their message — that American public schools must provide more math and science education — is getting through.

“We’re making progress on awareness, and we now need to introduce computing earlier and more broadly to ensure that students get excited at an early age and their interest is sustained through college and beyond,” said Steve Vinter, who directs Google’s Cambridge office and chairs an industry group pushing for computer science courses in Massachusetts schools.

Economists predict students who develop high-tech skills will have an easier time landing jobs after college. For example, the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects jobs for app developers will increase by 23 percent between 2012 and 2022. It estimates employment growth for biomedical engineers at 27 percent and information security analysts at 37 percent, compared to an average of 11 percent across all sectors.

Medfield is an affluent suburb south of Boston known for its strong schools. It also tracks its students closely, offering a precise log of the changing interests of college-bound graduates. For example, the school system tracks how many of its students have decided on a specific course of study or career track upon graduation: Out of the 230 students in the class of 2014, 144 have indicated college majors. [The writer is a 2005 graduate of Medfield High School.]

But the same trends are evident elsewhere. In Abington, a middle-class community to the east, and Lowell, an aging urban center with a large immigrant population, high school guidance counselors said more students are leaning to the sciences and technology.

Amy McLeod, director of curriculum and instruction at Lowell High School, noted that 60 students took advanced calculus this year, compared with just a handful in 2007.

“We have also partnered with Middlesex Community College and UMass Lowell to offer dual-enrollment courses in engineering, environmental science, and calculus so that students can start gaining credits towards these majors before they even leave Lowell High School,” McLeod said.

Other surveys show the higher interest in science and tech happening across the United States. For example, the US National Center for Education Statistics found that the rate of college freshmen declaring majors in technology fields increased by 14 percent from 2008 to 2012.

The center’s survey data also revealed another pattern: Students in general are selecting majors earlier. In 2008, 19 percent of college freshmen were undecided on a major; in 2012, just 6 percent were undeclared.

That data suggest that students at a younger age are focusing more sharply on their long-term career prospects. Indeed, in Medfield, some grads acknowledged they are targeting tech because of the promise of steady employment and strong paychecks.

“You go on some of these job search websites, and one of the highest-growth jobs right now is biomedical engineering,” said Kevin Caprio, who will study engineering at Clemson University. “It looks like it’ll be a good job market right out of college.”

Money aside, it is undeniable how profoundly technology has shaped this young generation. In 2007, when this year’s grads were starting middle school, the original iPhone had just hit the market and Twitter was the infant technology of the moment. Now, both a smartphone and a Twitter account were probably indispensable parts of their graduation celebrations.

Technology has been such an integral part of their lives that some graduating seniors can scarcely recall a point where they did not feel comfortable with the latest gadget in their hands. Dan Tritcak, leaving Medfield to study computer science at Siena College, remembers his parents buying a new computer when he was 8 or 9. They had no idea how to set it up, so he configured everything for them, seeing the task as no more daunting than a childhood toy.

“It just seemed like Legos to me,” Tritcak said.

Once they are hooked on technology, students can apply their skills to almost any passion, suggested Robert Treiber, a Medfield lacrosse star planning to major in electrical engineering at Tufts University. Recruiting overtures piqued his interest in the armed forces, and Treiber’s is to build robots for the military. Tufts has a thriving robotics program that recently entered into a research project with the Navy.

His classmates have different dreams, but many are walking a similar path toward a high-tech major.

“Whatever they want to do, people are always trying to design new things and build new things,” Treiber said. “For a lot of us, it just makes sense.”

Callum Borchers
can be reached at callum.borchers@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @callumborchers.
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