Eyeballs in the Fridge: Why do we love science?

by Stephanie Chasteen on July 10, 2010

I just ran across an interesting new study with the provocative title, “Eyeballs in the Fridge:  Sources of early interest in science”.  Here’s a short review.   You can read the original article here.

This was particularly interesting to me because I’m a person with a strong early interest and aptitude for science, but in a way I left the fold, since I’m no longer a “traditional” bench scientist.  I’m still in science education, and loving it, but what urged me along the science path, what was that force that ended up driving my life in this direction?

People are generally very worried about the state of the scientific enterprise in the US.  We need more scientists in the workforce.  Most people are tackling that problem by addressing the piss-poor levels of scientific literacy — by improving science teaching, for example.  But there is an implied causality there:  If people understand science better, they’ll want to do it for a career.  This study went looking for other things than simply “doing well in science”  that affected whether kids went into science as a career.

There’s a great book called “Talking about Leaving:  Why Undergraduates Leave the Sciences” by Seymour and Hewitt.  In interviews, they found that a lot of students — male and female — were turned off by the abstract nature of science classes in college, and the competitive edge.  That seems to be echoed in the general literature — kids often leave science because it doesn’t seem to be a vibrant, interesting field, but rather a boring and autocratically-taught subject.  People who stay in the sciences, on the other hand, have a deep intrinsic interest in the subject that transcends the drill-and-kill that often happens in the school.  They have a spark.

So, what is that spark makes people want to be a scientist?

To answer the question, these researchers interviewed scientists and graduate students in physics and chemistry, and looked for some general themes.  For giggles, I’ll share where I fit into these data.

1.  The Timing of the Spark

The vast majority of people wanted to be a scientist before middle school – though this was more true for the physicists than for the chemists.  About a third had their interest sparked in middle or high school.  A surprising number said that they were “always” interested in science.   Women and men responded roughly the same.

I think that I might fall in that 30% of “in middle school”.  I remember finding out what a physicist was in 8th grade – someone who “figures out how the world works” and I said that I wanted to do that.  Though my father was a chemist, I don’t recall a lot of interest in science in elementary school.   On the other hand, one respondent’s quote, “I don’t know, my father’s a biologist so I was kind of raised in a house with I guess scientific influence” kind of struck a bell.  So maybe I’m an “always” girl.

What about you, dear reader – when did you become interested in science?

2.  Who instilled the spark?

So, who was responsible for creating that spark?  Most people (45%) said that it was self-generated:

I liked toys like tinker toys and building blocks and taking things apart and seeing how they worked from early on. Science play was kind of more my inclination rather than physical play. (Female, Professor, Chemistry)

Another 40% said that their interest came from school activities, and another 15% from family.  Some said that their families had pressured them into science. But these results were very different for men and women!  More men said that they were motivated by self-interest (57%) whereas most women said they were motivated by school (52%).

I’m pretty sure that I fall into the “school” category, with some small influence of family.  I liked science in school, I was good at it, I was influenced by a few special teachers.  The fact that Dad was a chemist was more of a background support rather than a strong initial factor in my interest.

3.  What was the type of interest?

For about 50% of people interviewed, they were intrinsically interested in science to start with.  So, they tinkered at home with electronics, did experiments at home, and read science or science fiction.  I know I read science fiction, but I was never much of a tinkerer.  I wish that I had been.  I feel I’d be a better scientist now.

Many others (38%) mentioned school activities as sparking their interest, like classes, science projects, and teachers.  Unsurprisingly, teachers really left a mark on several students — either through encouragement or through disparaging words.

Fewer people mentioned family as an important source of interest, but all mentioned them as an important source of support.

Here is the story that sparked the title of the article, indicating the importance of school activities in encouraging a love of science:

When I was in third grade, my teacher did something you couldn’t do in class  anymore—we dissected cow eyes. And I thought it was so cool and so much fun that he sent a bunch of extras home in a paper bag, and reminded me to put them in the fridge  when I got home. And so I did. [When my mom came home she] said, “Hey, how was your day?” I said, “Great!” and I just went about my business and forgot the eyeballs in the fridge. She thought it was leftover lunch and went to open it up, and there were, like, four or five eyes looking back at her. And so all of a sudden I heard this screaming, and I realized what I had done … then from that point I started to really love science.
(Female, PhD student, Chemistry)

So, the take-home messages here are:

  • Both men and women get interested in science early.  SO…. efforts to improve secondary level education and interest in science may be misguided!  We need to catch kids younger.
  • School experiences are important to many (40%).  Teachers’ support can encourage interest that’s already there, but it can also foster a new love for science.
  • Men more often find their initial spark of interest in science within themselves; Women more often find it in school activities.

So, something that we in the museum community have known for a long time — giving kids engaging activities is just as important as teaching them the content they’ll need to know on the test.

The paper concludes:

We used to believe that improving science education meant better training for teachers and increasing student understanding of scientific principles. We assumed that improving instruction and performance would lead to greater numbers of scientists in the pipeline. The results of this analysis make us believe that there are other factors that play a more significant role in getting students to consider careers in science. From the teaching perspective, it seems that including a variety of content and activities to engage students with different interests, providing an engaging classroom environment, and allowing students to feel comfortable asking questions about their understanding are all important factors that can improve student interest in science.


Andy Rundquist July 10, 2010 at 12:36 pm

I thought it was interesting that there wasn’t much about math aptitude and interest. I know for me I went to undergrad all set to be a math major, having told people for years that math was my favorite subject. Then I met some physicists and realized they were smarter than I was math-wise but got to do some cool stuff with it too. I switched to physics that first year and never looked back.

Now I teach physics to undergraduates and there are a few majors that have similar stories to me. Of course there are others who knew they wanted to be physics majors for a long time as well. It’s always interesting hearing how they came to their educational paths.

What’s really interesting is how difficult it is to teach so-called non-major courses. The level of math ability/interest/inclination is so varied that the class rarely ‘gels.’ There are some students who agree with me when I say things like “ok, the problem is essentially done now, we just need to solve for the unknown” and others who see the remaining steps as extra mystery (misery?).

Thanks for calling attention to this article!

sciencegeekgirl July 10, 2010 at 3:02 pm

Hi Andy,

Interesting point — I’m sure that there is data to the opposite effect… those who hate math probably end up turned off of science. I wonder if those who love math generally just see that as a necessity or pre-requisite, rather than a spark of interest?

As to the non-major courses, yes, it’s always really tough to speak to a varied audience, be that at a conference or in an article (or a blog!) or a class. Do you feel you manage to grab the interest of the varied levels, but give people something to chew on at whatever their interest level is?


Andy Rundquist July 10, 2010 at 10:18 pm

One thing I’ve started to spend more time on in all my classes, including the non-major courses, is to watch when various parameters cancel out of the problem. Now when ‘g’ cancels I’m always careful to say that we’d apparently get the same result on the moon.

Paul Doherty July 11, 2010 at 5:30 am

Working with a group with varied backgrounds is the ultimate challenge of teaching.

I see it as my job to give everyone in class the chance to learn just a little more than they bring in to the class.

Thanks for the pointer to this article Steph.

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