Interests versus Role Models

Recently I wrote a blog about a study of young Europeans in which a majority expressed interest in science and technology, but few intended to pursue a career in that field. I have found a similar poll, this time of teenage Americans, that goes somewhat deeper into the respondents’ thinking about this career option.

The study was conducted by the Lemelson-MIT Program, a nonprofit within MIT that is intended to inspire and encourage inventors. According to a January 2009 press release, 85 percent of the young Americans responding to the survey expressed interest in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). The main reason they cited for their interest was “curiosity about the way things work.”

A follow-up question asked respondents who expressed interest in STEM what would motivate them to work in this field. Slightly more than half said they were interested in the career for “protecting the environment” or “improving our society.” Only 18 percent were interested for the sake of becoming rich or famous.

The respondents also had a positive image of scientists. Asked to choose a word to describe scientists, 55 percent felt they are “intelligent” and 25 percent chose “successful.” Only five percent bought into the “nerdy” stereotype

There has been much criticism of America’s schools, but 80 percent of the teens surveyed by the Lemelson-MIT Program believed that their schools had prepared them to pursue a STEM career, if they should choose that path.

Why, then, are colleges not besieged with applicants aspiring to major in STEM subjects? The survey found nearly two-thirds of the respondents saying that they may be discouraged from pursuing a STEM career, either because they don’t know anybody in this type of career (31 percent) or because they don’t understand what people in these careers do (28 percent).

This last finding should raise a red flag in the scientific community, warning them that they need to be doing more outreach to provide role models and help young people appreciate the rewards of scientific work. I can attest to the power of role models from my own experience.

I can remember very few specific events that happened in my fourth-grade class, but I distinctly recall when we received a visit from Beman Lord, the author of a book we all had read. It was the first time I had met a professional writer, and although the occasion was not sufficient to propel me into a scribbling career (as far as I know, I’m the only person in that class who now works as a writer), it definitely helped to interest me in that goal.

A few years ago I read about a marine biologist who “adopted” an elementary school class. During an around-the-world expedition gathering data, she blogged daily on what she was doing and answered questions from the class. Some other outreach efforts have provided opportunities for teachers to participate in scientific research over the summer so they can communicate to their classes what the experience is like.

The public as a whole is mostly ignorant about what scientists do. Many people remember science from their schooling as a body of knowledge to be learned rather than as a form of inquiry. Even though their science courses may have included laboratory work, they may have taken away the impression that lab work is done to find the “answer” that has been predetermined to be correct. You can see how misunderstood science is when those who oppose the teaching of evolution use the argument, “Evolution is just a theory.” They know so little about science that they think a theory is a hypothesis that is posed without evidence, whereas in reality a scientific theory is an explanation that accounts for a large accumulation of empirical evidence.

Therefore, besides outreach from scientists, we need reform of science education so that young people have a better understanding of what it means to “do” science, as opposed to just learning its findings. Then perhaps more young people who are interested in STEM will actually pursue it as a career. Our technology-based economy depends on finding these workers.

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