The number of American college students pursuing degrees in science and technology soared during the Great Recession.

University of Pennsylvania sociology professor Jerry Jacobs worked with Linda Sax of the University of California Los Angeles to analyze the results of annual surveys of college freshmen between 2007 and 2011.

There, they found the earliest indicators of students' shift to STEM fields. They found a 57 percent increase in the number of students who said they planned to major in engineering. The number of students interested in biology, already a popular major before the recession, also rose by 28 percent.

"Unfortunately, when the economy turns down, interest in the sort of practical payoffs of getting a technical education seem to increase," said Jacobs.

Even while the economy recovers, he takes away a very practical message about what will keep students earning these highly desired degrees. While the conversation has focused on the pipeline to science, technology, engineering and math careers, particularly for girls, students' response to financial incentives has received less attention.

"Students are responding to what's going on in the job market," he said. "If employers are serious about this notion that there's this terrible shortage of people going into the STEM fields, they can contribute to the solution by improving salaries ... and by improving working conditions, in particular making STEM careers more family-friendly," he noted.