Science attitude kicks in by 10 years old

There’s a lot of talk these days about STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) in the field of education. It seems that every country that has produced materials about innovation, economic well being, etc.  in English and I’m guessing all the other countries too (I just can’t read their materia]s) want more children/young people studying STEM subjects.

One of the research efforts in the UK is the ASPIRES research project at King’s College London (KCL), which is examining children’s attitudes to science and future careers. Their latest report, Ten Science Facts and Fictions: the case for early education about STEM careers (PDF), is profiled in a Jan. 11, 2012 news item on (from the news item),

Professor Archer [Louise Archer, Professor of Sociology of Education at King’s] said: “Children and their parents hold quite complex views of science and scientists and at age 10 or 11 these views are largely positive. The vast majority of children at this age enjoy science at school, have parents who are supportive of them studying science and even undertake science-related activities in their spare time. They associate scientists with important work, such as finding medical cures, and with work that is well paid.

“Nevertheless, less than 17 per cent aspire to a career in science. These positive impressions seem to lead to the perception that science offers only a very limited range of careers, for example doctor, scientist or science teacher. It appears that this positive stereotype is also problematic in that it can lead people to view science as out of reach for many, only for exceptional or clever people, and ‘not for me’.

Professor Archer says the findings indicate that engaging young people in science is not therefore simply a case of making it more interesting or more fun. She said: “There is a disconnect between interest and aspirations. Our research shows that young people’s ambitions are strongly influenced by their social backgrounds – ethnicity, social class and gender – and by family contexts. [emphases mine]

I was particularly struck by the fact that attitudes are positive but, by age 10, researchers are already observing that children are concluding ‘it’s not for me’.

Here’s a little more about the ASPIRES project,

The ASPIRES research team, led by Louise Archer, Professor of Sociology of Education at King’s, is tracking children’s science and career aspirations over five years, from ages 10 to 14. To date they have surveyed over 9000 primary school children and carried out more than 170 interviews of parents and children. After the age of 10 or 11 children’s attitudes towards science often start to decline, suggesting that there is a critical period in which schools and parents can do much to educate the next generation of the options available to them. [emphasis mine]

As for the report ‘Ten Science Facts and Fictions’, you may be in for a surprise if you’re expecting a standard academic study. It’s very colourful and illustrated with cartoons; each fact/fiction has its own page and only one; it summarizes and aggregates other research; and the whole report is 16 pp.  It’s easy reading and the reference notes mean you can follow up and read the research studies yourself.

On a note related to the conclusions made the ASPIRES researchers, I came across a Jan. 27, 2012 news item on Medical Xpress about a US study where researchers attempted an intervention designed to encourage more teens to study science,

In a different intervention study aimed at changing teen behavior in math and science, researchers did not target the students themselves but rather their parents. The goal was to increase students’ interest in taking courses in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). “We focus on the potential role of parents in motivating their teens to take more STEM courses, because we feel that they have been an untapped resource,” says Judith Harackiewicz of the University of Wisconsin, Madison. [emphasis mine]

The participants consisted of 188 U.S. high school students and their parents from the longitudinal Wisconsin Study of Families and Work. Harackiewicz and her colleague Janet Hyde found that a relatively simple intervention aimed at parents – two brochures mailed to parents and a website that all highlight the usefulness of STEM courses – led their children to take on average nearly one semester more of science and mathematics in the last two years of high school, compared with the control group. “Our indirect intervention,” funded by the National Science Foundation, “changed the way that parents interacted with their teens, leading to a significant and important change in their teens’ course-taking behavior,” Harackiewicz says.

Given Dr. David Kent’s panel at the 2011 Canadian Science Policy Conference (David’s interview about the panel is in my Oct. 24, 2011 posting) where he noted we have too many science graduates and not enough jobs, I’m wondering if we’re going to see a Canadian effort to encourage more study in STEM subjects. It wouldn’t surprise me; I have seen policy disconnects before. For example, there’s a big effort to get more children and teens to study science while graduate students from the universities have difficulty finding employment because the policy didn’t take the end result (the sector [e.g. universities] that needed people [science professors] when the policy was instituted had already started to shrink and 10 years later no one needs these graduates) into account.