Interests & Recruitment in Science:

Factors influencing recruitment,
retention and gender equity in science,
technology and mathematics higher education

What is IRIS?

IRIS is a collaborative research project, supported by the European Commission (7th Framework programme) and involving six partner institutions in five European countries. The project period ran from 2009-2012, but results from the project are still being disseminated.


IRIS addresses the challenge that few young people in general, and women in particular, choose to pursue an education in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, STEM. The objective of IRIS is to develop knowledge and recommendations informed by evidence on how young people, and women in particular, may come to see STEM as an educational choice that is right for them and to persist in their STEM education until graduation. Specifically, the project addresses the following questions:

1) What are the priorities, values and experiences on which young people base their educational choice?
 2) What are the success factors for interventions aimed at recruiting more young people (women in particular) to higher STEM education? and
3) How do STEM students who drop out/opt out before graduation, explain their choice?

Theoretical frameworks

IRIS draws on different theoretical frameworks to address young people’s educational choice processes and their relationship to STEM:

- An expectancy-value model of achievement-related choices; sociological theories about youth in late modern societies; young people's identity work and their construction of a narrative describing their choice;
- Tinto’s (1993) model describing students’ decisions of whether or not to persist in their chosen education; and feminist perspectives on women's participation in STEM (see IRIS publishable summary for details)

Research methods

The questionnaire IRIS Q was completed by almost 7000 STEM students in 5 European countries in 2010-2011. It comprised 65 items covering school science experiences, inspiration for choice of education, expectations for future job, students’ first-year experiences, and attitudes to gender equity in STEM. The target population was first-year students within 8 STEM disciplines defined through the ISCED Classification. IRIS also encompasses a range of qualitative and quantitative modules, including a combined questionnaire, focus group and interview study of the impact of school science curriculum on students’ subject choices; a study of first-year female STEM students’ written narratives of how they came to choose STEM, and an interview study of the narratives of first-year students as they negotiate whether to stay or leave STEM higher education programmes.

Main results

Through literature review, data collection and analysis, reflection and discussion, IRIS has generated insights into young people’s educational choice processes and their relationship to STEM. In the project publishable summary, results are listed under the following headings: Educational choice as an ongoing process; Interest, self realisation and identity; The impact of school, teachers and mentors; Out-of-school influences; Staying in STEM, leaving STEM?, and Females in STEM.

IRIS recommendations and potential impact

IRIS aims to stimulate informed discussion concerning improved participation in STEM. Results from IRIS have been – and will be – discussed in different fora. A book based on the IRIS consortium collaboration is scheduled to be on the market in 2013 (Henriksen, E.K., Dillon, J. and Ryder, J., eds., in preparation (2013). Understanding student participation and choice in science and technology education).

Guidelines and recommendations aimed at stakeholders in the educational system, government, industry, and professional societies, are listed in the  project publishable summary, under the following headings: Understanding educational choice and supporting STEM choice; Develop school science curricula that support informed participation in post-compulsory STEM;  Support teachers in providing STEM instruction that creates and maintains interest for female and male students; Develop varied recruitment initiatives with opportunities for personal meetings; support undergraduate STEM students to enhance retention, and Address the views on STEM presented through media.

Latest news and upcoming events:

Book resulting from the IRIS collaboration:

Henriksen, E. K., Dillon, J., & Ryder, J. (Eds.). Understanding student participation and choice in science and technology education. Dordrecht: Springer.

IRIS monografija