Kids Are More Motivated To “Do Science” Than “Be A Scientist” – A Finding That Could Help Address The Profession’s Diversity Problem

GettyImages-639407632.jpgBy Matthew Warren

It’s well known that science has a diversity problem, with women and members of minority groups being underrepresented. A new study suggests a solution aimed at children – reframing science as something that people do, rather than something that defines their identity, can reduce the potentially off-putting impact of the “white male” scientist stereotype.

According to the paper, published recently in Developmental Science, thoughtful use of language encourages greater interest in science among young children – and makes them less likely to lose confidence in their scientific abilities as they grow up.

Ryan Lei and colleagues recruited 212 children in 2nd and 3rd grade (about 7-9 years old) at two diverse publicly funded schools in New York City. The kids were randomly assigned to one of two groups: one group always received “identity-focused” language about science (that implied that scientists are a specific category of people), while the other always received “action-focused” language (that implied science is an activity that anyone can do). 

For instance, at the beginning of the study the kids saw a video that introduced them to the scientific process. For the identity-focused group, the narrator of the video used phrases like “scientists make thoughtful guesses to help them learn about the world”. The action-focused group, on the other hand, heard language like “when people do science, they make thoughtful guesses to help them learn about the world”.

At three points across the academic year, the children answered questions measuring their attitudes towards science, including their levels of interest (either how much they wanted to “be a scientist” or “do science”, depending on the group they were in), and how good they thought they’d be (either at “being a scientist” or “doing science”). At the second and third testing points, they were also asked to judge how many parents of other children at school “were scientists” or “did science”.

Overall, the children in the action-focused group had a greater interest in “doing science” than those in the identity-focussed group had in “being a scientist”. The action-focused group also rated themselves higher in their scientific abilities, and they thought that more adults “did science” compared with how many people the identity group thought “were scientists”.

Across the year, as the children got older, their interest in science and belief in their own abilities decreased. But the kind of language they had received was important: children in the action-focused group didn’t show a decrease in self-belief, unlike the children in the identity-focused group. In part, this effect seemed to be because the action group believed more adults in their community were doing science. “The benefit of action‐focused language partly occurred because children have more inclusive representations of who they think can ‘do science’ than of who can ‘be a scientist’”, write the authors.

The results suggest that language can have a big impact on how kids’ views of science develop through childhood. This is important, say the authors, because in schools and the media labels like “scientist” are common. The study suggests that teachers should reframe discussions to talk about “doing science” instead. 

This careful use of language could be particularly useful to encourage interest in science amongst those who might not see themselves as fitting the stereotype of a scientist – although interestingly, a supplementary analysis didn’t actually find any differences in the effect of the action/identity framing between boys and girls, or those of different ethnic backgrounds. The authors suggest the study may have too few participants to detect those kinds of differences – this is an important area for future, larger studies to consider. 

Children lose confidence in their potential to “be scientists”, but not in their capacity to “do science”

Matthew Warren (@MattbWarren) is Staff Writer at BPS Research Digest

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