Study urges early emphasis on science

May 26, 2006

What do you want to be when you grow up? Eighth-graders asked this question in 1988 were two to three times more likely to earn science and engineering degrees in college if their answer was a science-related career. The National Research Council recently reported the United States is slipping in its leadership in science and technology fields and recommended "vastly improving" K-12 education in math and science.

Research by Robert H. Tai, assistant professor of science education at the University of Virginia's Curry School of Education, agrees with this recommendation. At a time when more schools are focusing on reading and math to beef up standardized test scores, Tai's research, to be published in the May 26 issue of Science magazine, suggests this focus may ignore the importance of an early emphasis on science.

Tai and U.Va. researchers Christine Qui Liu, Adam V. Maltese and Xitao Fan analyzed data from the National Educational Longitudinal Study, begun in 1988, to see if expectations about science made a difference in later choice of college academic study.

"To the question, does it matter if a person decides early on whether to pursue science? The answer is yes," Tai said. "While the outcome may not be surprising, in light of the many stories we've all heard about the lives of famous scientists, this study put this notion to the test and found a link between early life expectations and future life outcomes."

Tai and the research team looked at a random national sample of 3,359 students who had first been surveyed in eighth grade and who received college degrees by 2000. The study focused on the survey question, "What kind of work do you expect to be doing when you are 30 years old?" Connecting this question to data collected from the same students years later, the researchers could identify those who had selected the option of science-related jobs compared to students who chose nonscience jobs and then majored in life sciences or physical sciences and engineering. Those youth who expected to go into the sciences were two times more likely to get their degree in a life science and three times more likely to get a degree in the physical sciences or engineering than students who chose other career options.

The study controlled for variables including students' demographics, academic characteristics and achievement scores, as well as their parents' backgrounds, such as education and professional versus nonprofessional occupation.

Although mathematics was important, mathematics achievement doesn't take the place of science interest, Tai found. The results indicate that average eighth-grade math achievers with science-related expectations are much more likely to earn physical science or engineering degrees than high math achievers without this interest.

Lately, federal policy has put more emphasis on high school curricula, ignoring science education for elementary and middle school grades. Tai's concern is that teachers are increasingly teaching to the test because under the federal NCLB regulations, their schools will get penalized if students don't pass and they don't make adequate yearly progress.

"Life is not a standardized test. We should use testing to help us learn more about how best to teach children. But kids are not being encouraged to go into science by testing."

The paper concludes: "Although our current analysis does not provide proof of an uninterrupted causal chain of influence, we should pay close attention to children's early exposure to science at the middle and even younger grades."

Source: University of Virginia

Explore further: Thomas Edison's 'lost' idea: A device to hear the dead

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Florentine basilica gets high-tech physical

Feb 26, 2015

Late last year, two University of California, San Diego students set out for Florence, Italy, to diagnose a patient that had no prior medical record, couldn't be poked or prodded in any way, and hadn't been ...

Teens from single-parent families leave school earlier

Feb 20, 2015

A new study from researchers at New York University, the University of California, Irvine, and the University of Chicago finds that that by the age of 24, individuals who live in single-parent families as teens received fewer ...

SwissCube's longevity marks its success

Feb 20, 2015

Launched more than five years ago, the small Swiss satellite designed by EPFL and several other Universities of Applied Sciences, will soon have orbited the Earth 30'000 times. Against all odds, its systems ...

Think again about gender gap in science

Feb 17, 2015

Scholars from diverse fields have long proposed that interlocking factors such as cognitive abilities, discrimination and interests may cause more women than men to leave the science, technology, engineering and mathematics ...

Seven myths about scientists debunked

Feb 16, 2015

As scientific researchers, we are often surprised by some of the assumptions made about us by those outside our profession. So we put together a list of common myths we and our colleagues have heard anecdotally ...

Recommended for you

Thomas Edison's 'lost' idea: A device to hear the dead

22 hours ago

One of Thomas Edison's little-known ambitions was to build a device to hear the voices of the dead, according to a nearly lost chapter of the inventor's memoirs which is being republished in France this week.

Bribery 'hits 1.6 billion people a year'

Feb 27, 2015

A total of 1.6 billion people worldwide – nearly a quarter of the global population – are forced to pay bribes to gain access to everyday public services, according to a new book by academics at the Universities of Birmingham ...

User comments : 0

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.