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Extension > Youth Development Insight > Science is hard work and that makes it fun

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Science is hard work and that makes it fun

By Rebecca Meyer 

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

You are welcome to comment on this blog post. We encourage civil discourse, including spirited disagreement. We will delete comments that contain profanity, pornography or hate speech--any remarks that attack or demean people because of their sex, race, ethnic group, etc.--as well as spam

11 comments:

  1. Hi Becky,

    Years ago I can remember reading an article about why college students drop out of STEM degree programs. The argument was that they had access to so much "fun" science in high school that they weren't willing to work through the not so fun parts of their college chemistry or engineering classes. I think your approach of balancing the fun and the rigor will help to prepare youth for the future.

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    1. Thanks Sam. I recall reading a similar piece a few years ago from the New York Times (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/06/education/edlife/why-science-majors-change-their-mind-its-just-so-darn-hard.html?_r=0). This piece also references the importance of aspiration.

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  2. Becky, thank you for sharing this article. I agree with Sam that Science in general needs to see the power of youth having fun in science. If that was accepted programs like 4-H science would have a huge advantage and credibility to the science world.

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    1. Hi Brian. Thanks for joining the conversation. I believe as we design STEM learning opportunities we need to consider this important balance of fun and rigor in meaningful ways. Science and engineering are challenging disciplines. Sometimes we minimize this for a variety of reasons, but as this latest research indicates this can be a disservice to youth. We should be more intentional in our efforts to engage youth in STEM in ways that are meaningful (that it can be fun, but that is can also be hard) - that it (they) can make a difference.

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  3. Becky,

    Nice article. I related to the statement, "Yes, we want to inspire young people, but we should also be sharing the value of struggle and the value of failure." I think it is natural to cling to the positives and the triumphs, but my personal experience is that I learn the most in the situations where something has gone wrong, mistakes are made and I am facing challenges. That is when I can see more clearly what needs to be changed or implemented to not only address the problem, but to build a better system that allows for more success in the future.

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  4. Becky, great article and spot on. As a high school Biology teacher, seeing the trend of students having a lack of grit is one of the biggest problem in education today. I could not agree more we need to show students that hard work, and wrong answers, is part of the process. We learn from everything we do; even when the answers are not what we expect. Looking at Carol Dweck's work on mindset, and teaching students and parents about these two mindsets, I believe is part of the process.

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    1. Hi Matt! Thank you, and thanks for commenting. I completely agree and appreciate your comments. I find the discussions on grit and mindsets incredibly important. Do you have intentional strategies or practices in your teaching that you have found successful in overcoming these challenges?

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  5. My recent forays into the Engineering Design Process (courtesy of MN 4-H) have really helped me see the value in failure in solving a problem, and it reminds me of a quote about failure attributed to Thomas Edison, “I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work.” To get past those failures we have to be willing to re-evaluate how we were thinking and considering the issue or problem and this requires us to be able to think freely, outside of the box, and employ our creativity. And who better to think that way than young people who haven’t been taught what the box is?

    And I appreciate Matt Austin’s acknowledgement of how STEM education can develop grit and growth mindset in our young people!

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  6. Thanks Kyra! I appreciate your comments, and absolutely agree that one's personal growth can result from something that does not go as planned. These can be tremendous learning opportunities. As it relates to youth programs, I believe it is important to find supportive ways to encourage this failure along with fostering the necessary problem-solving skills to create that rich learning experience for the young person.

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  7. This is great piece from Scientific American and resonates with the topic that I wanted to pass along: http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/guest-blog/failure-in-science-is-frequent-and-inevitable-and-we-should-talk-more-about-it/?WT.mc_id=SA_FB_POLE_BLOG

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