Ask the Experts

We frequently ask one another what we can do to encourage kids’ interest in science. One of the people submitting questions for my interview with Neil deGrasse Tyson (okay, it was my husband) would like me to ask him. And we generally don’t have a shortage of opinions on the topic, either.

Desiree Schell had a somewhat different take on the topic for LogiCon. She put together a panel of kids and asked them. Marie Claire Shanahan reported on the results, some of which confound our expectations.

This theme of not giving students what they need was carried over into a discussion of role models. A physicist in the audience asked the students what people like him could do to be better role models for young people in science. It’s a common solution proposed for encouraging and maintaining student interest: provide more and better role models. All four panelists, though talkative and eloquent, were silent. They looked at each other, raised their eyebrows, and shrugged their shoulders. Desiree rephrased the question asking them who their role models are and why they are good role models. Not surprisingly the ones they listed where people in their lives, mostly family members and teachers. The justifications, though, were a little more surprising and explained their confused silence. The students didn’t focus at all on the what the role models were like, other than they should be generally nice people. It wasn’t about the role models; it was about what the role models did for the kids. Good role models challenged them just enough. They asked good questions, and most importantly, let the kids find out the answers. Each student repeated essentially the same answer. Role models should encourage and inspire questions and exploration, that’s all. The kids themselves need to do everything else. There were no comments about having role models that were like the students or role models who broke stereotypes or role models who had overcome challenges and no indication that they really wanted to learn from someone else’s experiences. There was instead a lot of reinforcement that the process of role modelling isn’t modelling at all, it’s all about what the kids get to do and it’s really easy to forget that. Alex said it clearly, “You just want to prepare many many paths for students and let them take them.”

It sounds like it was an interesting panel. I don’t know that I would take everything the kids had to say at precisely face value (there’s a reason we do blinded studies on topics), but their voices are an important part of the discussion, particularly where they challenge us. Find out what else they had to say.

Ask the Experts
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3 thoughts on “Ask the Experts

  1. 1

    Hi Stephanie,
    Thanks so much for sharing this. It was a terrific panel, and I was really pleased to be able to write about it.
    To follow up on your comment about taking their ideas at face value, I agree that’s always an important question to ask. In this case, the kids are actually pretty well supported by the research literature. Most studies show much stronger effects for personal encouragement from parents, teachers and peers (even if they’re not in science) than specific science role models. Studies of the types of teachers that have the most influence on students’ perceptions of the themselves in science, show the role model status of the teacher matters less than if they are encouraging and supportive of students’ own interests and learning.

    e.g., Gilmartin, S., Denson, N., Li, E., Bryant, A., & Aschbacher, P. (2007). Gender ratios in high school science departments: The effect of percent female faculty on multiple dimensions of students’ science identities. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 44, 980–1009. doi: 10.1002/tea.20179

    Bleeker, M.M., & Jacobs, J.E. (2004). Achievement in math and science: Do mothers’ beliefs matter 12 years later? Journal of Educational Psychology, 96(1), 97–109.

    Jacobs, J.E., Finken, L.L., Griffin, N.L., & Wright, J.D. (1998). The career plans of science-talented rural adolescent girls. American Educational Research Journal, 35, 681–704.

    This isn’t to say that there are no benefits to role models, there definitely are especially when students might hold stereotypical views of themselves. It’s just that the effect isn’t nearly as strong as we might think from how much attention role modelling receives. Having already seen that in the literature, it was very cool to hear it, unprompted, from these kids.

    Thanks again for sharing this!

  2. 3

    Interesting and novel! Why not ask the kids themselves what they need?

    My 14 yr old daughter was talking about the selection of videos the teacher for her health class chooses and about how they inevitably feature a “role model” who is supposed to connect with the kids somehow and get them engaged. This figure is almost always an athlete.

    It might work for some of the kids, but not for my daughter. She’s a classical musician and a voracious reader. She loves science. She wonders why we don’t have people accomplished in pursuits that don’t involve a game are presented in the same light.

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