"Real Science" vs "School Science

I research motivation for science learning in girls. My research subjects come from participants in the SPICE program. When I started interviewing and surveying girls, I was mostly interested to see if and how the program was impacting girls motivation for science education and what I could learn from them to improve the program. Along the way, I realized that I needed to better understand how girls construct the idea of what it means to do science and be a scientists. I came to this conclusion because I kept having interactions like this:

Me: How do you feel about learning science?

Girl: Are you talking about school science or real science?

Among the dozens of girls I’ve interviewed and hundreds I’ve surveyed, only a handful have ever identified a teacher as “someone they know who is a scientist.” Many of my interview subjects argue that to be a scientist one must do science, and by do science they mean carry out scientific activities, not learning about science concepts and facts. They often use this metric for both themselves and their teachers. Many girls demur from claiming a science identity because they do not feel they have the skills and experience to contribute to scientific understanding, even if they are avid science enthusiasts.

I really should not have been surprised at this finding. After all, I’ve spent a lot of time advocating for science learning that is hands-on and builds science efficacy and motivation through scientific practice. It seems so obvious now, but it was a bit of a revelation at the time. I was thinking of schools as failing girls because of innate cultural sexism (e.g. lack of femal science roll models, not calling on girls enough, not recognizing girls accomplishments), which is definitely a problem, but I was overlooking how the structure of school science classrooms is failing all students. 

Think of it this way, in language arts we learn to read by reading. In gym class we learn to play sports by playing sports, in math we learn math by doing math. In science class we learn science by learning about science. Oh sure, it’s true that occasionally you get to dissect a frog or grow a plant, but mostly you memorize facts and carry out fairly constrained lab activities. You hardly ever pose questions and design your own experiments. It’s not just primary school that fails at this. By the metric of the girls I study (scientist = doing science), undergraduate study at university has very little “real” science in it. It’s not until graduate school that students begin designing and carrying out experiments like “real scientists.” 

I would argue that this is important because girls tell me it is important. When I ask them if they like science they describe school science as boring, worksheet-driven memorization. When they talk about doing “real” science at SPICE camp they emphasize that all learning is hands-on and that they are allowed to discover the underlying concepts we are teaching through exploration. Now, I know that most of these kids are not really just filling out worksheets in school. I know that many of them are working through inquiry-based lessons designed to instill a deep understanding of concepts . . . and yet . . . girls consistently come back to the idea of science being about doing “real” science, which for them consistently comes back to autonomy, discovery, and exploration.

I also do not want to dismiss out of hand the importance of learning the knowledge base of science. Yes, sometime you have just got to memorize the difference between meiosis and mitosis, but injecting real scientific practice into classrooms is vital for engaging kids with science and making them feel like real scientists.

Now you may be asking, “Well, if science teaching sucks all around, why is it a gender issue?” Aha, because, you see, world is more than just the classroom the world is every message, stereotype, and sitcom on TV that reaffirms the notion that men have a place in science and women do not. Even if science in the classroom is not that engaging, boys will still get the message that science is a viable career path. We also know that boys get more extracurricular science exposure and support.

What does all this mean practically? I think there are a few useful take-aways. First and foremost, do not assume that just because you call something “science” that kids will actually agree with that label. As adults and educators we may think we are exposing kids to lots of science content, but be missing out on the key element that makes kids feel like they are participating in science. One obvious answer is to make school science more hands on and provide children with more exploratory and discovery based science learning opportunities. This is obviously, not without challenges when dealing with large classes of frenetic children. I think that the parts where girls are not seeing their teachers as “real” scientists is another important area for improvement. Providing teachers with a little extra training on how to present themselves as actual science experts with experience carrying out science experiments may help kids view their teachers in a new light. This only works if teachers really do have this experience and expertise, though.

I think there is value in having these conversations explicitly with students in science classes. Ask them what they think makes someone a science and if they think of themselves as scientists. Talk about how the class can work together to make the study of science more like the practice of science. Teachers and parents can also help broaden students conception of what it means to do science and be a scientists. Children often associate “science” with a litany of facts and terms rather than a method of investigating the natural world. There is also a tendency for children (and adults) conflate “science” with chemistry. It’s important to talk about and learn science as a practice and a mindset rather than just mixing chemicals in beakers. 

Another area where adults can help kids see science differently is to point out scientists around them. Often times, I find, children actually do have science role models in their lives and do not realize it. Aunt Jenny who “works with computers” may actually be a software engineer. Cousin Jamie who “works in the woods” may be a riparian habitat specialist. Asking the people around children to talk the scientific activities they engage in and share why it is important to them can open up a whole new way of thinking about what science is and can be. 

These are some steps that can help, but I also do not want to discount students observations about the artificiality of science studies in school. Reconciling the divide between “school” science and “real” science is going to take more than a few conversations to “fix” kids ideas about science. It will require genuine change in how we approach science learning.