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To Encourage Girls in Science, Talk Action, Not Identity


Girls persevere longer and are more engaged in science tasks when they are asked to "do science," rather than "be scientists," finds a new study in the journal Psychological Science.

It's the latest of a slew of experiments identifying small differences in a teacher's language that may improve motivation in science—particularly for students who feel threatened by stereotypes suggesting they are less likely to perform well in the subject.

Across four experiments, researchers Marjorie Rhodes of the Conceptual Development and Social Cognition Lab at New York University introduced students ages 4 to 9 to a game about the scientific method. For some students, Rhodes and her colleagues described the game in terms of action (i.e., "doing science"); for others, they described the game as performing an identity. ("Let's be scientists!")

Girls in the first group continued the game longer on average than the girls asked to be scientists. Boys who were younger than 5 also preferred the action-related language, while older boys prefered the identity-related language. 

The study comes amid a broad push to recruit more girls into science, technology, engineering, and math fields. Prior research suggests that girls' interest and performance in science can be tied to their beliefs about whether STEM fields are appropriate for girls. One recent study found that girls adopt stereotypical beliefs about their suitability for science careers as they progress through school, with more girls at the start of school than in high school depicting women when asked to draw "a scientist." 

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