Schools today are tasked with preparing the next-generation to succeed in life; and that’s a tall order!
I once taught at a posh girls' school in England. The girls there were very self-assured and had unwavering expectations of who they wanted to be as adults: lawyers, doctors, writers, and some, just a wife! None of them wanted to be a teacher, and I don't remember anyone telling me they wanted to be a scientist. I recall a girl, a straight ‘A’ student and highly accomplished outside of school, who failed to realise her dream of studying medicine at Cambridge University. She did accept her second choice university however, and likely now a great doctor.
In contrast to the posh school experience was the 'inner-city comp' (Comprehensive School) that was attended on most days by the police and ambulance services. I laugh about it now, but the ‘challenging’ behaviour (in many cases arising from serious social and emotional deprivation) had me grinding my teeth by the end of the day. However it was at this school, that I encountered a quiet and unassuming girl, who some might say "Despite everything," successfully gained a place at Oxford University.
The point I want to make here is that schools can and do make a difference but that's not the whole story. This 'thing' that motivates kids to follow their passion and do whatever is necessary to achieve their dreams, has nothing to do with ‘posh’ or ‘poor,’ or even university quotas, it is something inside of us, something to be tapped into, and if we are fortunate, we figure out how to do just that.
Psychological scientists have started looking at factors other than intelligence that make some students do better than others. In the book "The Hungry Mind" Sophie von Stumm (University of Edinburgh, UK) and her coauthors wondered if curiosity might be another important factor. "Curiosity is basically a hunger for exploration," von Stumm says. "If you're intellectually curious, you'll go home, and you'll read the books."
Another factor is conscientiousness - basically, the inclination to go to class and do your homework. Students who score high on this personality trait tend to do well in school. Overall, the research results highlight that a “hungry mind” is a core determinant of individual differences in academic achievement.
ABILITY OR PROCESS?
Stanford psychology professor Carol Dweck, one of the 2017 inaugural Yidan Prize Laureates, discovered through her research into growth mindset - that parents and teachers might be praising in a way that backfires: They often heap praise on the ability, the talent, or the intelligence whereas it is the process they should acknowledge and praise. This is the process the child engages in - their hard work, their focus and perseverance, trying many strategies, learning from their errors, their improvement etc. just as a true scientist would experience.
SO WHAT IS A SCIENTIST?
A scientist is someone who systematically gathers and uses research and evidence, making a hypothesis and testing it, to gain and share understanding and knowledge. A scientist can be further defined by:
- HOW they go about this, for instance by use of statistics (Statisticians) or data (Data scientists)
- WHAT they’re seeking understanding of, for instance the elements in the universe (Chemists, Geologists etc), or the stars in the sky (Astronomers)
- WHERE they apply their science, for instance in the food industry (Food Scientist)
All scientists are united by their relentless curiosity and systematic approach to assuaging it, and not all scientists wear white coats and work in labs. There is a wide variety of jobs and careers that require knowledge and application of science, from research to business and from regulation to teaching. The (UK) Science Council has identified 10 types of scientist working today. Which one are you?
Educating students correctly in STEM subjects will help prepare students for life, regardless of the profession they choose to follow. STEM (or STEAM) subjects: Science, Technology, Engineering, (The Arts) and Mathematics - by necessity, teach students how to think critically and how to solve problems.
Hopefully your kids are getting a great STEM education at school, but for most kids the chances are that those classes aren’t enough to instil a lifelong interest. STEM fields are tough - they are more rigorously graded than other subjects, and with test results such a huge focus in education today, students likely aren’t getting enough of the inspiring hands-on learning that leads to lasting interest.
Teaching students to LOVE science can’t be easy, but in science you have famous role models to point to, wildly inspiring success stories, movies to watch, experiments that explode, and animal organs to dissect … the list is endless.
STEM ROLE MODELS
STEM is just an acronym and nobody is ever going to get excited by acronyms. What turn students on to STEM subjects turns out to be significant. A teacher could make the difference; parental encouragement could inspire ... a role model however, is perfect! A role model is living evidence of someone who has succeeded, and the message this sends to kids is that it’s OK to dream of being who you want to be.
Amy McGrath is a fantastic modern day role model for STEM, especially STEMETTES (girls in STEM). In this viral video Amy tells her inspiring story and how as a young girl she found her passion and overcame many obstacles. She also highlights her military success, saying she was the first woman Marine to fly an F-18 in combat.
NICHE SUBJECT – NO WAY!
The perennial issue with science is that it’s viewed as a niche subject, something only certain kids study in school and only certain elite adults use in their lives. A Pew study found that just over a third of Americans read science news more than once per week. A Science Everywhere survey of parents earlier this year revealed that only 56 percent believe they use science at least once per day (compared to 93 percent for reading). But the reality is that we all see and use science every day, from using our phones to baking cookies with the kids.
Recognising science when it’s right in front of us is the key to developing a passion for it. Parents just have to look for the science behind things they do and see every day, point it out to their children and make them more curious. In the biography "Surely You're Joking Mr Feynman" - Tales of a Curious Character, Nobel Laureate and physicist Richard Feynman, is described recalling how his parents encouraged him be curious and how that stayed with him all his life.
As educators we know that STEM education is the wave of the future. Schools know that they will fail kids substantially if they don’t teach them how to think critically and how to apply that thinking to solving problems. This process needs to start early, and it has a lot to do with curiosity.
Thanks to Science and Technology competitions, we are able to offer opportunities to young scientists; for example girls like Anushka.
In the past decade, jobs that require routine skills have decreased, while technology-centred jobs have dramatically increased. We as teachers have an important role in promoting and finding out how to motivate to excel in science. By raising its profile and increasing student participation in the sciences, we can ensure that the youth of today will have a successful tomorrow.