How Students Become Scientists

By Laura Hoxworth

The importance of science education is growing, but students’ interest in science declines as they get older. With a $1.7 million grant from the National Science Foundation, UVA professor Robert Tai wants to help figure out why.

What makes a student decide to become a scientist?

Robert Tai, an associate professor of science education at the University of Virginia, is on a mission to find out. A former physics teacher, Tai leads a research team at the Curry School of Education and Human Development focused on science education, studying topics like student engagement in K-12 science, the retention of students in the science pipeline and factors influencing success in college science courses.

One topic of great concern to his team is how to cultivate students’ engagement with science. Recent studies have shown that as children grow, their interest in science tends to decline. To help figure out why, Tai recently received a $1.7 million grant from the National Science Foundation.

“You see a decline in students’ engagement in science as they get older,” Tai said. “What we want to do is identify what kinds of curricular activities would help engage students and sustain their engagement into the future.”

Where Love for Science Begins

The new study is the latest in a line of research that goes back more than a decade. It all began in 2006, when another of Tai’s NSF-funded projects established that early interest in science is strongly connected to future careers. Tai’s team found that students who reported interest in a science-related career in the eighth grade were two to three times more likely to graduate from college with a science degree 12 years later.

This finding kicked off a string of follow-up studies looking closer at exactly when – and how – students first develop an interest in science.

“Fundamentally, when we talk to scientists and people training to be scientists, it all comes down to their love for what they do,” Tai said. “They really enjoy the work. There’s a deep personal commitment.”

The more his team studied the topic, he said, the more they realized that kind of love for science starts long before a student makes a conscious decision about careers or college majors.

As part of this body of research, Tai’s team recently surveyed children in third through 12th grades about the types of learning activities they encounter in and out of the classroom. Based on their findings, the team developed seven categories of activities: competing, collaborating, performing, discovering, making-creating, caretaking and teaching.

Classroom lessons and out-of-school time programs include combinations of these seven categories of activities. For example, science fair projects many times combine competing, discovering and performing activities. Popular team robotics competitions commonly include collaborating, competing, making-creating and performing.

Now, the team is digging down further – to find out which of these activities get students engaged with learning science. In the upcoming project, researchers will survey third- through 12th-graders in nine local school divisions twice a year over the course of three years. A range of questions will ask students about what types of activities they most enjoy, what extracurricular activities they prefer and their overall attitudes toward science.

Ultimately, the five-year study will combine both qualitative and quantitative data to explore what kinds of activities help light the spark of interest in young students.

Cultivating Scientific Literacy

While he was initially interested in how students become scientists, Tai said the latest study has a broader scope. His team is not only interested in how future scientists develop their interests, but at how all children engage with science – whether they grow up to become scientists or not.

“Obviously, workforce development is a part of it,” he said. “But I would say it’s actually a very small part of it, even though it has a tremendous amount of economic benefit. The other part of it is this idea of having a scientifically literate populace.”

In other words, Tai believes that better relationships with science create better citizens. As global concerns about climate change continue to escalate and technology continues to advance in leaps and bounds, the importance of scientific literacy will only continue growing.

“Science is playing a bigger and bigger role in what we’re doing on a daily basis,” Tai said. “There are all these technological advances that we really need, as a public, to understand, because they can have huge ethical, political and social impacts.”

For example, one recent poll found that more than 80% of parents in the U.S. support the teaching of climate change, but most teachers aren’t discussing it in their classrooms. With scientific topics at the center of news stories and political debates, Tai is concerned that science itself is becoming increasingly politicized. What’s important for all children to learn, he said, is that “science isn’t to be agreed with or disagreed with – science is.” 

And that process starts early. Part of the project’s goal, Tai said, is to help educators better understand how to cultivate young adults who are prepared to navigate a future where understanding science is more relevant than ever.

A Holistic View of Student Learning

When is the last time you had a teacher who asked you how you wanted to learn? As a professor and a former high school teacher himself, Tai knows that understanding how individual students like to learn is a powerful teaching tool.

He hopes the findings of this study will help illuminate the many ways that students interact with content, so teachers start to ask that question much more frequently.

“If you can pre-identify which students are likely to be interested before they go into an activity, as a teacher, you have a better idea of where you need to focus your attention,” Tai said.

While Tai’s team is focused on science education, this area of research extends to much more than just science.

“I’ve had this conversation with historians, with music teachers, with a lot of different people – and they see that there’s a tremendous amount, if not a complete overlap, with all seven of those different types of activities,” he said.

Plus, Tai said his team is adding a rich layer of data by investigating what goes on outside of the classroom, too. By asking questions about students’ out-of-school activities, the research team hopes to provide a more holistic view of students’ learning experiences – wherever those learning experiences happen to take place.

“When students are in school, they more or less go to the same classes or follow similar curriculum,” Tai explained. “But when it comes to out-of-school time, there is a tremendous amount of variation.”

Understanding more about the value of certain out-of-school time activities, he said, will help guide program directors on what kinds of activities should be more widely available.

Ultimately, the project recognizes that learning is a two-way street: it’s not just about the lesson plan, but about how each individual student engages with it. With more knowledge about how students like to learn science, Tai hopes the study shines a little more light on the complex process of how a scientist becomes a scientist.

“We’re hoping to get a better understanding of not just how to best teach children, but also how children approach learning for themselves,” he said. “It’s not just understanding what we’re doing in our teaching and our pedagogy, it’s also understanding how children are responding – what they’re bringing to the table.”