Can’t stop the science (and tech and engineering and math)

If you’re in college or high school and you’re reading this, think about the sights and sounds of moving down the hall. If you’re beyond college and high school, think back to those days (with apologies for some of you…yeeeesh). Anyway, think about the time people have with fitting in, with finding friends (again, apologies). Then think about those people that were just trying way too hard to be ‘edgy’ and bag on the rest of us for being ‘conformists.’ You know the type – they’re too ‘cool’ to be part of any ‘clique’ and will never conform. Well, there’s bad news for those people – conformity is a survival instinct that has been around since time immemorial. The search for identity aside, we do it to be accepted as part of a group since after all, ‘lone wolves’ may be heavily romanticized, but their chances of survival increase by quite a lot if they hunt along with a party. Or, maybe in a less hunter-gatherer-ish society like high school (less, really?), you’ll have a better chance of getting through high school without going nuts.

Besides, you notice that these ‘loners’ often hang out with other ‘loners’ too?

Public Domain (Author: The White House, 2016)

That was an overly long intro that is only tangentially related to this week’s Featured Article, which does has to do with how students’ aspirations for STEM (Science, Technology, Education, and Mathematics) careers may be influenced by this idea of ‘interest quorums’ that the authors introduce. They define an interest quorum as “a science class where students perceive a high level of interest for the subject matter from their classmates” – in other words, interest in STEM is high for all students. Thus, the authors hypothesize that students that are immersed in this quorum are more likely to choose STEM careers. Their investigation involved a survey of 2092 students taking mandatory  English courses in 50 American colleges of various types (2- or 4-year, large, medium, and small). Why English classes, you may be asking – the authors assert that these classes would have a better mix of STEM and non-STEM majors. The survey asked students about their backgrounds, focusing on their experiences with high school science, how well they did, and how they felt about STEM in general. As with a lot of survey studies out there, there is quite a lot of statistics work-up involved to find seemingly random relationships with other variables, such as gender.

Public Domain (Author: Andreas Breitling, 2016)

So what did they find? They found that their hypothesis was correct, for one – students whose backgrounds fit under a higher interest quorum were more likely to be interested in STEM careers than those in lower-interest groups. A little more statistics work-up to see if differences between students (in terms of gender, family support for STEM, etc.) found no difference in their interests in STEM careers regardless of what quorum they were in. Interestingly, their career choices often pointed towards biology, and higher GPA also trended with more interest in STEM careers, but the higher the GPA, the more likely students were swayed towards physics. See, this is why physicists are often stereotyped as the biggest nerds. There’s also the obvious question – what about teaching quality? I’m sure we’ve had memorable teachers in high school science, although they’re memorable for a variety of reasons, including not being very good or, in my case, off-the-wall and sarcastic but with great presence. The authors ask this question just in case it is indeed the teaching quality that creates (or even influences) the creation of the quorum. Unsurprisingly, these were related as well. So the take-home message is this: the better the high school science classroom, the more students are motivated towards learning STEM and even taking STEM career paths.

Public Domain (Author: April Bryant, 2015)

OK, interest in science doesn’t always translate into STEM careers. For example, one of the authors (the 2nd author, actually) of this paper was involved in its writing as a high school student, but ultimately took another path in life. But that author still has a life-long love and appreciation for the sciences. The same thing could be said about this theoretical physicist-come-ninja. We can’t all be scientists (have you seen the training for that!?), but we can all be interested in, appreciate, and even love the sciences. Why else do you think I blog – attention?

Public Domain (Author: Yingnan Lu, 2017)

(well, yeah, that too)

All the same, interest spreads, and that’s how science spreads. That’s how the love of science spreads. That’s why science teachers are trying to find new ways of teaching and reaching out to students – regardless of whether they breed scientists in their classrooms, they want to breed members of society who love science and aren’t easily swayed by wild claims that are at best shaky and at worst highly deceptive. You can catch STEM, but it’s not some disease that you’ll regret later. Believe me, there are worse diseases you can catch in high school…

Featured Article: Hazari Z, Potvin G, Cribbs JD, Godwin A, Scott TD, Klotz L. (2017) Interest in STEM is contagious for students in biology, chemistry, and physics classes. Science Advances 3:e1700046. DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.1700046.

Featured Image: Public Domain (Author: Gerd Altmann, 2013)

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