'Eyeballs in the Fridge' Needed to Entice Early Interest in Science, Study Finds

Listen to the UVA Today Radio Show report on this story by Rebecca Arrington:

March 9, 2010 — A new study co-authored by a University of Virginia Curry School of Education professor finds that key experiences that sparked scientists' initial interest in the subject may come earlier than middle school, as previously reported.

The study, "Eyeballs in the Fridge: Sources of Early Interest in Science," appears in this month's International Journal of Science Education. Robert H. Tai, associate professor of science education at U.Va.'s Curry School, produced the report with Adam V. Maltese, assistant professor of science education and adjunct faculty in Indiana University's Geological Sciences program.

Maltese and Tai analyzed 76 interviews collected from scientists and graduate students for experiences they reported that first engaged them in science, focusing on when it happened, who provided the experience and what the experience was like.

The article's title comes from the story of one participant who related how she excitedly brought home extra cow eyes after her third-grade science teacher led the class in dissecting them that day. She diligently followed the teacher's instructions to place the leftovers, carried in a brown paper bag, into the refrigerator. However, she neglected to tell her mother – who screamed in horror after opening the bag to see eyes staring back at her.

Though she hadn't meant to frighten her mother, the participant said of the classroom experience, "From that point I started to really love science."

"Not that every student should get to take home eyeballs," Maltese said, "but we would recommend that they're given a chance to explore the natural world and have multiple types of experiences in science that allow them to find something they're interested in."

Analysis of the data revealed differences between men and women with regard to the type of experiences that sparked their interests. Most of the women participants reported an external influence – something like the eyeballs incident – as the source of initial interest. Men in the study were more likely to identify intrinsic sources of interest, such as conducting their own experiments or being drawn to science fiction.

Despite these differences, the analysis clearly indicated that these key events happened at an earlier age than reported in much previous research. The majority (65 percent) of participants reported their interest began before middle school.

"This study has uncovered something that we may not have known was there," Tai said. "We might be focusing our attention on a particular part of education that may not be effective for some individuals while very effective for others."

The results also confirm an indication of science instruction trends that may favor male students, Tai said. He related his own experience as a former high school physics teacher, in which many of his experiments involved throwing objects like arrows, darts and even artillery.

"A lot of those types of examples are not related to the experience of most females," Tai said. "So in a way, we're kind of working against including females in the science pipeline. The study highlights the importance of gender equity in school science."

The analysis indicates that education policy should concentrate on bringing the right experiences to students at an earlier age.

"We're concerned that policy right now is so focused on secondary students and usually centers on just making them take more science and math," Maltese said. "Our results indicate that current policy initiatives likely miss a lot of students who may be interested early on and lose that interest by high school, or could be interested early on and aren't engaged. Targeting secondary level may be too late for that."

Other findings from the analysis include significant roles for teachers and school curricula in determining whether students choose science careers. Nearly 40 percent reported school-based factors as the source of initial interest. Some participants said that class content, a teacher's engaging personality or simply the fact that they received encouragement from a teacher played a major role in getting participants interested in science. Others also said that being in a class where teachers were open to all questions and weren't dismissive when responding to student inquiries was a positive factor.

The authors conclude that inclusion of a variety of content and activities, an engaging classroom environment, and allowing students to feel comfortable asking questions about their understanding may play a positive role in improving student interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics careers.

"If you're interested – as our government is – in trying to get more students interested in these areas so that potentially more students will end up in a STEM career," Maltese said, "you can't just put in place a policy that focuses on one thing and hope that's going to work for everybody."

The study used data gathered during "Project Crossover," a National Science Foundation-funded project headed by Tai, to study the process of training new scientists.

— By Rebecca Arrington