Skip to main content

"I'm no good at science!"

By Margo Bowerman

This is one of the saddest statements I hear from young people. I can almost guarantee it’s not true. When I talk to them, they’ve done things in science that I didn’t do until much later, and they can explain it better than I!  So why don’t they see themselves as science learners?

Usually, it’s because they don’t enjoy science class in school. Non-formal education, such as an after-school program, can provide a more positive experience and help young people to see their own abilities and gain proficiency in science. According to the Final Report of the NRC Committee on Learning Science in Informal Environments, non-formal learning experiences help young people gain science content knowledge. Just as importantly, they help young people to learn skills and practices, the ability to think scientifically and thus see themselves as science learners.

The Next Generation Science Standards help define competence in science and engineering as more than just knowledge in those fields; there is an emphasis on proficiency in practices of science and engineering. There are eight essential practices:

  1. Asking questions (for science) and defining problems (for engineering)
  2. Developing and using models
  3. Planning and carrying out investigations
  4. Analyzing and interpreting data
  5. Using mathematics and computational thinking
  6. Constructing explanations (for science) and designing solutions (for engineering)
  7. Engaging in argument from evidence
  8. Obtaining, evaluating and communicating information.
It’s important that the topics youth investigate are interesting and meaningful to them.  I would argue that most 4-H projects involve at least planning and carrying out an investigation (for example, “how can I take a picture of my puppy to get him to look the cutest?”) and analyzing and interpreting data (for example, “my horse responds best to an outside rein”).

Another key ingredient is the presence of a caring adult versed in positive youth development. This caring adult provides guidance to a youth member throughout their project, helping them strive towards a goal that has meaning to them, supporting them through problems and disappointments, and encouraging them to master skills or practices. Through this process, youth develop a recognition of their own skills and gain confidence in their abilities to persevere during setbacks.  And indeed, research by Vedder-Weiss and Fortus and by Britner and Pajares show that the support of a significant adult positively affects a young person’s engagement, perseverance, and belief in themselves in STEM-related challenges.

What are ways that you see non-formal education programs help youth gain proficiency in science and engineering practices?  How do your programs help youth see themselves as science learners?

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.
Print Friendly and PDF


  1. Hi Margo -

    Thanks for bringing up this topic. It is an important one. Sometimes science, math and engineering can be intimidating to not only the youth but also the adult who may be trying to facilitate the learning experience. But I think what many youth miss, is that they are probably doing science every day (without even recognizing it). For instance, a youth who collect bugs, stick or rocks on the playground are probably on the verge digging into science. They just need that extra push or encouragement to take the learning to a deeper level. Also using phrasing like " Wow - I really like what you did with that science experiment in the garden" - can help name the science youth do in their everyday lives through play.

    Keep this conversation going. It is great.

    1. Great points Jennifer! I think most adults miss that they are doing science and engineering every day too! At a bare minimum, we're all using technology (even if you are writing with a pen!), but can any adult say they're not asking questions (which milk should I buy at the store?) and solving problems (I want to avoid the construction on my way home), every day? Helping every one recognize a systematic process for answering questions and solving problems, and helping to name those processes when working with youth leads to belief that we can do science and engineering!

  2. Much of science is about trying things out - for the first time, that is. And how many of us always do things well right off the bat? My thought is that if we can make "failure" an expected outcome and just as meaningful (and dare I say, "fun") as success, we will go a long way to helping young people see that they ARE "good at science," which includes a healthy perspective on letting go out the outcome and learning from that outcome, whatever it may be.

    Thank you, Margo, for bringing up this terrific and important topic.


Post a Comment