Study says parents play vital role in molding future scientists, but actually doesn’t know for sure

The influence of parents – and I don’t mean genetic this time – is huge. According to new research by George Mason University parents and family make all the difference in creating the next generation of scientists, engineers and mathematicians. But actually, the study only says that kids who have an interest in science in later life have done all kinds of things science-inspired with their parents. But their could also be kids out there who didn’t participate in the Aspiring Scientists Summer Internship Program from which the respondents where taken, who did have parents who gave science-inspired gifts and did science-inspired family activities but who in later life don’t bother about STEM at all.

It could also be that the parents of the respondents just looked at their kids and saw what they like and adapted to it, putting the causal relation suggested in the study upside down.

I’m a bit disappointed that researchers who want to promote science make such a leap from evidence who just can’t support their claims.

Still some inspiration they share:

Cool Science-Inspired Gifts:

  • Biology/Medicine: microscope, human body anatomy toy, insect farm, DNA extraction kit
  • Chemistry: slime lab kit, crystal-growing kit, chemistry set
  • Astronomy/Space Exploration: telescope, meteorite excavation kit
  • Environment/Weather: alternative energy kit, weather lab
  • Physics/Engineering: blocks, electrical circuits, robotics

Family Fun Things to Do During Winter Break

  • Visit a museum
  • Watch science-inspired television shows
  • Perform hands-on science experiments at home
  • Attend a science camp, class or party
  • Visit a nature park
  • Read science-inspired books
  • Play with interactive science apps
  • Practice coding skills with free online tools

From the press release:

“We were surprised to learn that the family is more important than we ever thought in terms of igniting the passion of future scientists,” says Lance Liotta, a study author and co-director of George Mason’s Center for Applied Proteomics and Molecular Medicine.

The study, featured in CBE-Life Sciences Education, is the first peer-reviewed article of its kind to focus on what initially attracts young people to the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields. The findings could shape public policy and encourage community-centered activities designed to foster a love for science in the pre-teen and preschool crowd, says Amy Adams, director of Mason’s Aspiring Scientists Summer Internship Program and study co-author, along with Mason researchers Cara L. Frankenfeld, Jessica Bases and Virginia Espina.

The research team surveyed 149 participants in the Aspiring Scientists Summer Internship Program from classes from 2007 to 2013. This competitive internship attracts top high school and undergraduate students who work alongside Mason professors on real-world research.

The majority–65.5 percent–said science experiences with a family member or a childhood activity piqued their initial interest. Hands-down, 92.6 percent, of the students said hands-on lab experience cemented their decision to make a career in a STEM field.

Researchers say the message is clear: families play the leading role in building the next generation of scientists who may solve daunting problems facing our society. Only after the family, do schools and even colleges play a supporting role.

“As a mom of three children, I am inspired by the Aspiring Scientists’ recollections of what initially got them interested in science,” Adams says. “When I watch my two-year-old sit in a sea of blocks building creative structures or when his 10-year-old brother is amazed by the results of his chemistry experiment in the kitchen, I recognize, more than ever, that experiences like these may shape their interests in the future.”

Liotta says the holiday season is a great time to play.

“I have four grandchildren and love to work on science projects with them during the holidays and on summer vacations,” Liotta says. “Among many of the fun memories, we have made autonomous robots and held robot wars at Thanksgiving. We have also tested new micro airplanes and radio-controlled butterflies, and studied the behavior of cicadas.”

The researchers recommend science gifts for the holiday season to help fuel the imagination of future scientists. Family activities are another way to inspire future scientists, the researchers say.

“Parents who see the spark of science talent in their kids should reinforce that talent through family projects and nature walks,” says College of Science Dean Peggy Agouris.

Abstract of the study:

What early experiences attract students to pursue an education and career in science, technology,engineering, and mathematics (STEM)? Does hands-on research influence them to persevere andcomplete a major course of academic study in STEM? We evaluated survey responses from 149 high school and undergraduate students who gained hands-on research experience in the 2007–2013 Aspiring Scientists Summer Internship Programs (ASSIP) at George Mason University. Participants demonstrated their strong interest in STEM by volunteering to participate in ASSIP and completing 300 h of summer research. The survey queried extracurricular experiences, classroom factors, and hands-on projects that first cultivated students’ interest in the STEM fields, and separately evaluated experiences that sustained their interest in pursuing a STEM degree. The majority of students (65.5%, p < 0.0001) reported extracurricular encounters, such as the influence of a relative or family member and childhood experiences, as the most significant factors that initially ignited their interest in STEM, while hands-on lab work was stated as sustaining their interest in STEM (92.6%). Based on these findings collected from a cohort of students who demonstrated a strong talent and interest in STEM, community-based programs that create awareness about STEM for both children and their family members may be key components for igniting long-term academic interest in STEM.

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