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'Eyeballs in the Fridge': Science Interest Starts Early

A new study finds that scientists' initial interest in their subject is often sparked before they enter middle school, a conclusion the researchers suggest has implications for rethinking policy efforts aimed at getting more young people to become scientists.

The federally funded study examines the experiences reported by 116 scientists and graduate students that first engaged them in science. Sixty-five percent said their interest began before middle school. Women were more likely to report that their interest was ignited by school-related activities, while most men recounted self-initiated activities, such as conducting home experiments or reading science fiction.

The early interest in science "runs counter to many initiatives ... where the focus is on improving science education at the secondary level by simply improving student achievement or increasing enrollments in advanced science courses," write the co-authors, Robert H. Tai, an associate professor of science education at the University of Virginia, and Adam V. Maltese, an assistant professor of science education at Indiana University. "With a high percentage of both genders reporting interest in science prior to entering high school or even middle school, it may be important to instead center efforts on engaging young children in science."

It adds: "A common theme in science education is concerned with how to improve the training of science students; however, if one of the goals of science education is student persistence in STEM, it seems that teachers should focus on initiating interest and fostering engagement rather than on preparing for standardized examinations."

Titled "Eyeballs in the Fridge: Sources of Early Interest in Science," the study appears in the International Journal of Science Education.

The study's unusual title is a reference to the tale of how one Ph.D. student in chemistry recalls first getting excited by science. In her 3rd grade classroom, students were dissecting cow eyes, the study explains. She brought some "leftover" eyes home in a brown paper bag and put them in her refrigerator. The only problem was that she forget to tell her mother, who screamed when she discovered what she expected to be lunch leftovers.

"From that point," she recalls, "I started to really love science."

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