Instilling Scientific Curiosity in Students

by Stephanie Chasteen on June 20, 2011

Today is a guest post about scientific curiosity and its implications for STEM education.  What Jeremy writes about is something that I’ve seen referred to again and again — students drop from science in droves.  We lose science-interested students at every major transition — from elementary to middle school, from middle to high, and so forth.  Not coincidentally, each of those transitions is accompanied by greater abstraction, and less exploration.  Kids are natural scientists, curiously exploring their world.  But as they get older, that curiosity is often drummed out of them by the boring thing that science becomes.  So those who survive to explore science as adults often do so in spite of, rather than because of, the educational system.  Thanks to Jeremy for addressing this important topic.  Read on…

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Learning is a lifelong process that often thrives best beneath consistent exposure to riddles. As children we become accustomed to the sort of cyclic enlightenment associated with solving a tough mystery, do you remember how you felt when you learned that Santa Claus didn’t exist? For a child this is an important moment in life because it’s when thought paradigms are fractured and reformulated into new ways of thinking. If Santa Claus is just a myth, what else is hiding out there? Classic disillusionment is an important part of developing higher intelligence since it promotes external reflection, which is the basis of the scientific method. Typically a child will begin to ask new questions after this type of mental reformation. Are clouds really fluffy? Why is the sun so hot if it’s so far away? For that matter, what happens to the sun when it gets dark outside?

Curiosity is absolutely essential to the development of successful societies. Imagine if a group of people never questioned things like gravity or electricity. How would those people ever develop freestanding mega structures, renewable energy systems, computers, the Great Pyramids or the Internet? It goes without question that a culture’s collective curiosity drives its progression towards artistic and technological sophistication. This conscience is most simply manifested in the work of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) professionals, whose knowledge combines to create the viral core from which art and expressive media blossom.

Yet today, especially in the U.S., interest in the STEM space is falling dramatically amongst youth. In a report conducted by the Raytheon Company titled “Modeling Student Interest in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics,” some interesting statistics were put together that attempt to quantitatively express this fact.

Without going into too much detail of Raytheon’s methods, the above image shows a comparison of students interested in STEM to the total population of students examined in the study. In addition to showing an extraordinary gap in interest in mathematics, the graph also shows how this interest plummets after the transition from middle school to high school, from high school to college and from college to graduation. Look at the number of students interested in STEM as freshmen compared to those who graduate with a STEM degree. What’s going on here?

A prevalent speculation is that this phenomenon originates in how children are taught math and science in school. An overwhelming number of students consider math and engineering to be dry, inaccessible subjects that are too hard and too inconsequential to take a real interest in. Math is often taught in a rote fashion that effectively destroys the beauty and creativity involved in its operations. Science is taught from textbooks instead of through active, physical exploration of a student’s surroundings. Engineering is thought to be too mechanical to be a creative and expressive application.

Teachers across the nation are doing their best to innovate in how they teach these subjects, but America’s educational system has a long way to go before it reflects real development. Fortunately, technology is evolving in a way that is making STEM education both more enjoyable and more effective in maintaining interest in these areas. In a report featured on USA Today, Andrew Stern of Reuters illuminated the fact that “…Obama pledged $500 million for online courses and materials as part of a multi-pronged plan aimed at expanding access to college.” The President’s interest in online education is quite in sync with technology’s ability to raise interest in STEM. Why?

As more people use the Internet to obtain everything from a bachelor’s degree to an online PhD, the social acceptance of these programs will also increase. This will shift society’s conscience in a direction that promotes learning through alternative channels, which is still something that many parents and teachers stray away from today.  The New York Times featured commentary on a report done by the Department of Education in 2009, which came to the conclusion that “on average, students in online learning conditions performed better than those receiving face-to-face instruction.” It is a fact that integrating technology into the educational process makes learning more successful. Try to imagine how much more effective math-based education would be if it were actually fun. Thousands of online games exist today that engage students in creative ways while also helping them learn subtly abstract concepts related to science and math. If online games can make these concepts enjoyable for kids at a younger age, these students are that much more likely to maintain an interest in STEM as they get older.

Online education isn’t the entirety of the answer, though. Aside from the importance of mixing up educational methodologies with technology, teachers need to be aware of the impact that their own opinions of math and science have on their students. If as a teacher you discuss numbers through a droning, lackluster lens, this emotion is likely to bleed onto students. It only takes one bad math experience to ruin a child’s interest in the subject forever. Teachers must always remember that their attitude is key in promoting both interest and aptitude in STEM. Believing that you can solve a problem is half the battle in science.

Technology has developed to a point where it is ready to be used by teachers in the classroom as a fundamental component of the educational experience. Hopefully as the social conscience shifts in the future, more people will realize the benefits to be extracted from birthing new educational norms. It is in critical reflection that we become better thinkers both artistically and mathematically, and it will be through critical innovation that the U.S.’s educational system raise its bar a couple more notches towards successful modernization.

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Jeremy Fordham is a writer who assesses and promotes virtual PhD programs. He is an engineer who hopes to inspire dialogue in unique niches by addressing topics at the intersection of many disciplines.

{ 1 comment }

Jerrid Kruse June 20, 2011 at 4:23 am

The problem here is that maybe students can learn *about* science via online programs, but they will struggle to *do* science. As Stephanie noted, interest in science can be nurtured through exploration. However, online programs most typically focus on content acquisition.

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