Planning Early for Careers in Science Back »

Written by Kathryn Reeves (former SDSU Extension 4-H Science Field Specialist).

For several years, there has been a push for science education. National 4-H launched a campaign to train a million new young scientists by 2013. New programs, camps and out-of-school opportunities started all over the country, and not just for high school students. Companies such as Lego Education created new kits and curriculum to engage youth as young as kindergarten in things like wind power and simple machines. Engineering and math activities became central to many of these programs. Why so many, and why so young?

Much of it started with research conducted at the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia. Robert H. Tai, Christine Qi Liu, Adam V. Maltese and Xitao Fan conducted a fascinating study utilizing existing data from 1988 – 2000, to analyze the relationship between test scores, student’s expectations on achieving baccalaureate degrees in life or engineering sciences, and the actual achievement of those degrees. The results were published in the May 26, 2006 edition of Science Magazine, a publication of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

In their study, Tai, et al. discovered some very interesting things, mostly centered on data from the eighth grade surveys and achievement scores. First they looked at expectations alone. They worked backwards from the sample of actual graduates in life science and engineering degrees, pulling out the career expectations and math and science achievement scores, and found that the probability of eighth graders with an expectation of completing a science degree were nearly double of those without. They also found that eighth grade math achievement was not a significant predictor for life science degrees! They found the opposite for the physical science/engineering group. High mathematics achievers were much more likely to earn those degrees, however, expectations again made a big difference in the actual achievement.

For example, the probability of a student with an average math score who expected a science career achieving it was 34%, while the probability of the same type of student with no expectation was 10%. For students achieving math scores one standard deviation above the norm, the probability for a student expecting a science career jumped to 51%, but for a student with no expectation, the probability was only 19%. That means that an average math student with the expectation of a career in physical science or engineering is still much more likely to achieve the degree than a high scoring student with none!

Obviously, this study does not eliminate the quest to raise United States students’ math and science scores, but what it does emphasize is the importance of younger students being encouraged in the sciences. Parents with average scoring children should not deter them from their science oriented career interests, but continue to offer enrichment that will help them to solidify their math and science skills, making sure that the foundational building blocks are in place to allow them to pursue their dreams as they mature. When looking at programs for young children, parents should keep balance in mind. While sports are key ingredients for establishing healthy life styles, don’t pursue sports to the extent that there is no time for activities that focus around youth working to answer questions, solve problems, or design cool stuff. Look for local programs that encourage kids to explore; such things are often found in 4-H Clubs, Scouts, the YMCA and Boys & Girls Clubs. Promote a balance, and encourage discovery; the life skills that result will be well worth it, regardless of whether a science degree is ultimately obtained.

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