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Chuck Carney
IU School of Education

Last modified: Tuesday, March 9, 2010

'Eyeballs in the fridge' may be needed to encourage new scientists

New study finds earlier influences prompted scientists' career choices

March 9, 2010

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- A new study co-authored by an Indiana University School of Education professor reports that key experiences that sparked scientists' initial interest in the subject may come earlier than previously reported.

Maltese photo

IU School of Education professor Adam Maltese has co-authored research findings that suggest an interest in science may develop sooner in early learners than first thought.

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"Eyeballs in the Fridge: Sources of early interest in science," appears in this month's International Journal of Science Education. Adam V. Maltese, assistant professor of science education and adjunct faculty in IU's Department of Geological Sciences, co-authored the report with Robert H. Tai, associate professor of science education at the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia.

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 title "Eyeballs in the Fridge" 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. She didn't inform her mother -- who screamed in horror after opening a bag to see eyes staring back at her.

"I realized what I had done," the participant said. "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." Tai said the results also confirm an indication of science instruction trends that may favor male students. He related his experience as a high school physics teacher in which he said 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.

"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 (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) career, you can't just put in place a policy that focuses on one thing and hope that's going to work for everybody," Maltese said.

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