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Cultivation of Curiosity in Children Linked to Later Aptitude in Science

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Washington

The key to the United States winning the international race for the most STEM workers may be allowing—and even encouraging—kids to ask "why? why? why?"

All children have some level of innate curiosity that drives them to explore the way things work. But parents can cultivate that curiosity by exposing their children to new ideas and encouraging them to ask questions. And doing so could lead to effects that unfold for years, Adele E. Gottfried, a professor of educational psychology at California State University Northridge, said at the American Psychological Association Convention.

In a study of 118 children and their parents, Gottfried found that parents' answers on a survey, taken when their children were 8, about their efforts to encourage creativity correlated strongly with their children's interest and ability in science during the middle school years and, later, their enrollment in greater numbers of science courses in high school.

"Exploration is the central foundation of scientific endeavors," Gottfried said. So children who've learned to search for answers without the promise of an extrinsic reward may be more skilled at it or drawn to it.

Like so much research presented at the conference, which ended Sunday, Gottfried's work shows the importance of strong early parental involvement in a child's life. My colleague Sarah Sparks and I also heard about studies that show how a supportive parental relationship gives young children's brains the necessary time to grow connections crucial to emotional regulation, and how homeless shelters are working to target efforts at building those strong parental relationships for their clients.

So what are educators to do with this research?

In the case of curiosity, Gottfried told me that teachers should also encourage students to ask questions. Maybe schools can serve a role in making up for lost time. In a time of tight school budgets, this might be support for the argument that a field trip or two is still important.

Here's a bit more about the study.

Gottfried found the answers to these questions had the strongest correlation to a child's later interest and achievement in science:

  • Positive answers to "I try to expose my child to new experiences on a weekly basis."
  • Positive answers to  "On a weekly basis, I try to expose my child to experiences that make him/her curious."
  • Parents who said they took family trips to scientific, historical, or art museums.
  • Parents who more frequently "encourage your child to ask questions about new ideas."

Scientific achievement was measured through teachers' ratings and a Woodcock-Johnson test (a measurement of coginitive abilities in a given area) administered at age 9.

A child's interest in science was measured through a survey at ages 9, 10, and 13 that asked students to agree or disagree with statements like "I enjoy learning new things in science" and "I like to find new answers to questions."

Gottfried's subjects were mostly white. She found her results were the same when she controlled for factors like intelligence and socioeconomic status.

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