Science classroom excitement is infectious
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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bias The tendency to hold a particular perspective or preference that favors some thing, some group or some choice. Scientists often “blind” subjects to the details of a test (don’t tell them what it is) so that their biases will not affect the results.
biology The study of living things. The scientists who study them are known as biologists.
chemistry The field of science that deals with the composition, structure and properties of substances and how they interact. Scientists use this knowledge to study unfamiliar substances, to reproduce large quantities of useful substances or to design and create new and useful substances. (about compounds) Chemistry also is used as a term to refer to the recipe of a compound, the way it’s produced or some of its properties. People who work in this field are known as chemists.
colleague Someone who works with another; a co-worker or team member.
data Facts and/or statistics collected together for analysis but not necessarily organized in a way that gives them meaning. For digital information (the type stored by computers), those data typically are numbers stored in a binary code, portrayed as strings of zeros and ones.
engineering The field of research that uses math and science to solve practical problems.
gender The attitudes, feelings, and behaviors that a given culture associates with a person’s biological sex. Behavior that is compatible with cultural expectations is referred to as being the norm. Behaviors that are incompatible with these expectations are described as non-conforming.
high school A designation for grades nine through 12 in the U.S. system of compulsory public education. High-school graduates may apply to colleges for further, advanced education.
journal (in science) A publication in which scientists share their research findings with experts (and sometimes even the public). Some journals publish papers from all fields of science, technology, engineering and math, while others are specific to a single subject. The best journals are peer-reviewed: They send all submitted articles to outside experts to be read and critiqued. The goal, here, is to prevent the publication of mistakes, fraud or sloppy work.
peer (noun) Someone who is an equal, based on age, education, status, training or some other features. (verb) To look into something, searching for details.
physics The scientific study of the nature and properties of matter and energy. Classical physics is an explanation of the nature and properties of matter and energy that relies on descriptions such as Newton’s laws of motion. Quantum physics, a field of study that emerged later, is a more accurate way of explaining the motions and behavior of matter. A scientist who works in such areas is known as a physicist.
population (in biology) A group of individuals from the same species that lives in the same area.
pressure Force applied uniformly over a surface, measured as force per unit of area.
STEM An acronym (abbreviation made using the first letters of a term) for science, technology, engineering and math.
survey (v.) To ask questions that glean data on the opinions, practices (such as dining or sleeping habits), knowledge or skills of a broad range of people. Researchers select the number and types of people questioned in hopes that the answers these individuals give will be representative of others who are their age, belong to the same ethnic group or live in the same region. (n.) The list of questions that will be offered to glean those data.
technology The application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes, especially in industry — or the devices, processes and systems that result from those efforts.