Opinion
Science Commentary

Hooking Kids on Science

By Deanna Kuhn — April 24, 2012 5 min read

American students’ performance on international assessments of precollege science achievement has for some time been nothing to be proud of, and there are few signs of the picture improving. Even worse for the long-term prognosis, we don’t seem able to get enough young students hooked on science, either as worthy of their attention because of its intrinsic interest or as a potential career path.

Meanwhile, the design of new K-12 common standards for science is well along, with a draft due out later this month, as contributors continue to debate exactly what belongs in the curriculum. A frequently heard concern of science educators is that the “mile-wide and inch-deep” curriculum tries to cover too much ground and would have greater impact if we focused on teaching fewer topics well.

Perhaps oddly, then, the National Academy of Sciences Board on Science Education last year convened a committee to explore adding more comprehensive coverage of social sciences to the K-12 science curriculum, and possibly to the common standards for science, on the argument that social science is as worthy of study as other branches of science. When so little seems to stick, as the assessments of science learning tell us, adding more to the science curriculum would seem exactly the wrong direction to go.

Still, the committee is perhaps on to something important, as there exists another argument for its proposal. A key to attracting young students to science may be their ability to answer the question, “Why would anyone want to know this?” Many of them will try to remember what they’ve heard in class to reproduce on tests, to the extent they’ve come to accept what they’ve been told by parents and teachers: that doing so will benefit them in the short and long term. It’s much less likely they’ll have a sense of, or anyone will suggest to them, why this knowledge might be worthwhile in its own right.

The question of why is in fact twofold: “Why would anyone want to know this?” and “Why would I want to know this?” Clearly, the answer to the first question must be positive if we are to get to the second question. Yet, this first question—the “so what?” question—is one students typically will be hard-pressed to answer.

What they hear in science class is unlikely to convince them of any of the following regarding the topic of the day: This is the answer to an important question. It’s one of many such questions that have answers. It’s worth knowing about because someone can do something with this knowledge. There’s much more to learn about it. Many have dedicated their lives to the task.

Students from less advantaged backgrounds may find it especially hard to buy into such ideas, even if suggested to them, because their communities are less likely to include the role models of science professionals that benefit their more-privileged peers.

Yet, it’s the second question—"Why would I want to know this?"—that could well be the critical one. Young adolescents, we know, are preoccupied with the questions “Who am I, and where do I fit?” Hence, it’s critical for them to be able to come to the following conclusions with some conviction, for even a few of the diverse samplings presented to them as exemplars of science: This is interesting to me. It’s something I can understand. It’s something I can picture myself involved in and learning more about. There is something I could see myself doing with this. I would fit in a group working on this.

I return now to social science and how it could enrich science education, by way of example.

My collaborators and I have been devising curricula to develop middle school students’ inquiry skills, which both state and national science standards emphasize as a core objective of science instruction. The topics we employ are mostly social science topics. One is teen crime. We introduce it with the information that teen crime has been on the rise in an area, and students generate and discuss possible causes. We then inform them that social scientists have been studying the matter for some time, and that data are available across the United States and some foreign countries on teen crime rates, education, family income, and population density. We present students with a simplified but authentic database of 63 cases compiled from published statistics and ask them to investigate which of the four factors reported on are predictive of teen crime rates. They use InspireData (a simple data-analysis tool that displays data in multiple formats) and prepare a report on their findings. They may also write a newspaper op-ed piece informed by their work.

Social science has the potential to grab students’ attention because it taps into their interest in themselves."

Our objectives are not only to give students inquiry experience examining a multivariable database and drawing inferences, but also—and equally important—to foster their recognition that real-world outcomes are most often the consequence not of a single cause but of multiple factors acting in concert. These broad cognitive objectives are not achievable in a single activity; they need to be worked toward in multiple experiences across a range of content and contexts.

Other topics we’ve employed straddle physical and social science, such as the factors that contribute to life-expectancy variation across countries. Another topic—the variables that contribute to body-mass index—has proved a particularly rich one as students collect their own data (on several respondents’ calorie intake, exercise, age, and parents’ BMIs) and enter them in a shared database.

The gains we’ve observed with respect to both of the cognitive objectives we’ve targeted have been encouraging.

Beyond supporting understandings of inquiry and multivariable causality, a strength of this approach may be its facilitating students’ construction of positive answers to the questions above, both about the nature of science and their own identities—the nature of themselves—in relation to it. Such experiences support students in coming to believe, as Lauren B. Resnick and Sharon Nelson-Le Gall address in an essay in Piaget, Vygotsky, and Beyond, “that problems can be analyzed, that solutions often come from such analysis, and they are capable of that analysis.” If a student comes to hold the beliefs listed above regarding just a single topic, it may occur to him or her that the same could be true for other topics.

Social science topics are a good starting point along such a path because they address phenomena students likely already know something about. But they likely will not know that such topics are the stuff of science.

We’re still left with the familiar lament that engaging in any topic in depth is at the cost of all those that won’t be “covered.” The newest science standards, however, seem poised to converge on the conclusion that it’s not what particular corners of science students are exposed to that matters, but rather the broader ideas about science that they take away from this engagement. If so, deep engagement with a small number of topics stands not to confine students’ understanding but rather to enrich it.

We know the dismal statistics about how little of the traditional K-12 science curriculum sticks. Let’s continue to look for what might.

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A version of this article appeared in the April 25, 2012 edition of Education Week as Hooking Kids on Science

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