Science classroom excitement is infectious

Teens more likely to major in science in college when their science classes are filled with interested students

Emotions are contagious — including enthusiasm for science, a new study shows.

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Emotions can spread from person to person. Someone’s bad mood, for instance, can bring an entire crowd down. Interest in science can be catching, too, and in a good way, a new study shows. The more that students in a high school science class are into the material, the more likely an individual student will pursue a science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) career.

A few years ago, Zahra Hazari found a strange effect in one of her experiments. She studies science education at Florida International University in Miami. Hazari had noticed that students in biology classes that had more girls than boys tended to be more interested in biology. But in physics classes that had more boys than girls, more students, both boys and girls, interested in physics.

Was this a case of girls liking biology and boys liking physics? Hazari didn’t think so. Kids of both genders tended to enjoy the courses. She wondered if the effect instead might be due to students sensing the excitement of other kids in the class. It might not matter that there were more boys in physics or more girls in biology. Instead, it might be the excitement in the room that made the difference.

To find out, Hazari and her colleagues asked college students across the United States to fill out a survey. “We wanted to get a general population,” Hazari explains. “So we went to the mandatory writing and reading courses at each school.”

Asking writing classes “was a cool opportunity to avoid some of the bias that might happen if you only looked at science-interested students,” says Lara Perez-Felkner. She studies higher education at Florida State University in Tallahassee.

The scientists approached 50 small, middle and large two- and four-year colleges and universities, asking them to participate. Not a single university said no. “We are very proud of the 100 percent response rate,” Hazari says.

The professors for the writing and reading courses gave surveys to their students. The surveys asked whether students had taken high school biology, chemistry and physics. They asked participants whether they were pursuing a STEM career. Finally, they asked the students to recall their high school science courses. How interested were the other students in their class? Was everyone sitting with blank stares? Or was the class enthusiastic?

Hazari and her group received almost 7,000 completed surveys. They narrowed those down to about 2,000 students who had completed all three high school science courses. Then they compared what the students recalled about the excitement in their classes to their interest in STEM.

The results showed that a student’s peers can provide the best kind of peer pressure — getting other teens interested in STEM. If students remembered their high school science classmates as enthusiastic, they were more likely to pursue a STEM career, Hazari found. “The result is kind of obvious, right?” Hazari says. “But I think in a lot of research we need evidence to back it up.” Her group published their findings August 9 in Science Advances.

“I love the idea. I think the concept is really intriguing” says Perez-Felker. She was not involved in the study. She notes, however, there were opportunities for bias to creep in. For example, the students weren’t asked about interest in other, non-STEM subjects. Maybe the students were fans of learning all subjects, not just science.

More importantly, there was no way to tell how students might differ based on their income and educational opportunities, Perez-Felkner says. To be included in the study results, the students had to have taken biology, chemistry and physics. “Low-income students are less likely to have access to physics,” Perez-Felkner notes. “Rural students and students from under-represented minorities [also] don’t tend to have access to complete upper math and science courses.” Attending a school with more money might make it easier for those students to participate in — and get excited about — STEM.

“Bias is a very real possibility. The study is by no means perfect,” Hazari says. But she also notes that the effect persisted in students who had only taken one or two of the three science subjects.

In the future, Hazari hopes to find out more about how motivation might spread through science classrooms. A lot of the research on how students approach STEM focuses on how they can perform better in class, she says. Motivation and enthusiasm, she argues, don’t get as much focus. “If students are motivated and love the subject and care about it, if it’s meaningful for them in their lives, they’ll put in that extra effort.”

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Bethany is the staff writer at Science News for Students. She has a Ph.D. in physiology and pharmacology from Wake Forest University School of Medicine.