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Education Expert Busts Damaging Myths about Who Can Succeed in Science

Damaging myths about “science brains,” “math genes,” and what it takes to become a successful scientist or engineer are holding too many young people back, AAAS education expert Shirley Malcom told a public radio-show host.

All students can succeed in science and related fields if they receive proper instruction that feeds into their natural curiosity and academic interests, Malcom said during an interview with Jeremy Hobson, host of WBUR’s popular “Here & Now” program.

“I don’t know that I believe that there is a `brain for science,’ in the same way that I don’t believe there is a `gene for math,’” said Malcom, head of Education and Human Resources Programs at AAAS. “It’s a matter of how we are taught. It’s true that people aren’t necessarily going to all have the same interests, but in fact, they can have experiences that can get them to a point that they are at least literate and savvy about science so that they are able to look at claims that are being made and say whether or not those [claims] are reasonable. That’s really where we need to get everybody, and out of that group of everybody, we want to be able to pull some of those individuals into the practice of science.”

Malcom, who has received numerous awards for her lifelong efforts to bolster the role of women, minorities, and individuals with disabilities in science and engineering, was invited by Hobson to discuss the state of U.S. STEM education and how to improve it, particularly by making it more inclusive for all students.

Education experts like Malcom have long argued that the United States needs to tap into more of the potential talent pool of scientists and engineers, particularly given the country’s need for innovation to drive economic progress. Some evidence has suggested that U.S. students may risk falling behind their peers elsewhere. American teenagers performed below average in mathematics, ranking 27th out of 34 countries, when they were last tested as part of the Programme for International Student Assessment. Another assessment; the Nation’s Report Card, revealed that U.S. students’ mathematics scores at both grades 4 and 8 had dropped in 2015, compared to performance in 2013.

Students need teachers who know how to make science and technology relevant to them, beginning at the pre-kindergarten level, Malcom said. To succeed in science, young people also need encouragement from individuals, institutions, and society more broadly, she added.

Malcom, who grew up in the segregated South and went on to earn her Ph.D. in ecology, recalled being “under-prepared” for her freshman year of college, particularly when she was confronted with chemistry equipment she had never seen before. “We had segregated schools, and they were poorly resourced because, after all, there wasn’t an expectation that students who looked like me would ever end up going into the science,” Malcom told Hobson. Fortunately, she asked for help, improved her performance, and was able to gain the confidence she needed to succeed in science.

Hobson also gave Malcom a chance to dispel the false assumption that girls and minorities may simply be less interested in science and engineering, compared with white males. “Girls and minorities are just as interested in science as white kids,” Malcom said. “The interest among minorities in science, engineering, and related fields, is actually quite high.” Any student can succeed in  science under the direction of a well-trained teacher who has access to high-quality curricula as well as adequate support from institutions and society, Malcom noted.