Thinking of science as fun may bring youth to an activity, but they'll like it even more when they get to know more about the scientific process, challenges, and even the failures.
Effective science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education demands balancing fun, interest-building activities and attention to the authentic aptitudes and dispositions that prepare youth for professional careers. All too often we emphasize the fun-factor and minimize the notion that "science is hard." My colleague, Margo Bowerman, blogged about this recently: "I’m no good at science!"
New research indicates that part of the difficulty may be how we share the lives of scientists with youth. Sure, Neil deGrasse Tyson, E.O. Wilson, Sylvia Earle, Mae Jemison and other scientists are incredibly intelligent. It’s natural to focus on their intelligence and their successes, rather than their hard work and their failures along the way, even though these things are equally important to success. Yes, we want to inspire young people, but we should also be sharing the value of struggle and the value of failure.
As part of the program team for the NSF-funded Driven to Discover: Enabling student inquiry through citizen science (D2D), I worked with a group of Extension faculty to develop a program model with two important attributes for using citizen science as a setting for STEM education. One is engagement: making sure the activities are relevant, interesting and fun for youth participants. The second is the authenticity of the science: youth work alongside real scientists who help them to see how they are contributing to solving real-world scientific problems.
In our debrief with them, youth participants described how sweating and battling the mosquitoes alongside professional scientists helped them to realize that scientists are real people. Youth described how struggling through problems with experimental protocols, challenges with analysis, and even stolen bird feeders (unfortunately more than once) helped them understand, and feel good about overcoming the complexities of scientific practice. In other words, I think these experiences helped the young participants to understand that science is rewarding because it is fun, but also because it is hard and creative work.
I believe that STEM programs such as the 4-H Science of Agriculture Response Challenge and D2D, which balance fun with encouraging students to take risks, tackle the problems inherent to real-world solutions, and even sweat a little, are critical to preparing our next-generation STEM leaders. After all, STEM anxiety is learned, not inborn. Why not help youth learn instead to like STEM for what it is – a challenging and rewarding discipline?
-- Rebecca Meyer, Extension educator
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