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Why preteens study science

When I read LinkedIn Influencer and Cisco System's Chief Technology and Strategy Officer Padmasree Warrior's article on what makes her tick, I got to wondering about the pre-teen kids I'm volunteering with at a science and technology summer camp. For me, understanding the underlying factors of what motivates the kids to learn science and keep with it would help me become a better instructor for both substitute teaching and my volunteer work. I decided to poll them to help reveal these underlying factors, I hope that the information helps others understand their pupils as well.

The kids I polled are all super motivated, insanely curious, and unafraid to see what's around the next bend in science. They'd have to be to give up some of their summer vacation to play physics and chemical experiments, build bridges, and even learn and use math. With this demonstrated love of science, I wanted to see what got them to this point and if they thought they would continue. So, polled 150 kids between the ages of 10 and 13 and I asked three questions:

  1. What got you interested in studying science?
  2. Why do you like studying science?
  3. What do you think you'll do with science in the future?

After getting permission to record all their answers anonymously using Tape-a-Talk app for my phone, I had all the kids respond orally and individually while I worked with them. I wanted to do it in this relatively unstructured way so they could be as frank with me as they wanted. What I aimed for was a heartfelt, unrehearsed answer about how they viewed and felt about science.

What got you interested?
I'm used to working with kids, and this is the shortest way to understand what got them to the point they are at: loving science enough to study it in their spare time when not forced. It was interesting to find out that they really only had a few different responses as to what got them interested in. Most of the kids were influenced by someone they knew, whether a teacher, relative, a friend's relative. This was followed by being encouraged as a kid when they played. The kids with this category often told a story about how they were encouraged to find the answers on their own, and not scolded overly much for making messes. One older boy admitted that even though his parents were dismayed when he took things apart, they let him do it so they could encourage him to find a way to put it back together.

A few kids were inspired by reading grandiose tales of Renaissance scientists such as Leonardo DaVinci or scientists like Babbage. In all the tales they recounted, they made the scientist seem like either a nobleman or superhero that saved the world with science. Still, fewer still said they were inspired by a future career. In example, a girl said she wanted to be a farm vet to take care of cows, but for that she needed to know science.

Why do you like science?
This question was designed to get an idea of why they persist in studying science when they could be doing other things that kids do. It surprised me that I could also lump the 150 answers into general categories as I expected them to be much more varied than they were. For most of them, it was the challenge of finding a solution that solved a problem. They felt like they were not only contributing to something, but they were capable and responsible while they were at play with science. The next major response was that they liked to show off what they learned to their friends and family. In a few cases, some of them said they liked to brag that they could do these various things, like using HCl to see if rocks reacted because they were trusted with chemicals.

Less often, but still there, was the idea of learning something new. Many kids said they really liked that they were learning something different. The people that said this differentiated learning from the challenge. They said that they preferred to learn what to do, not explore how to do it and create a solution.

Lastly, several students just said "science is cool", but couldn't really identify any core thing that kept them learning it.

What will you do later?
I asked them this question for two reasons. The first was that I wanted to get the students thinking about how science affects their daily lives. The other was so I could see how many kids would go into applied sciences, research, or teach it. What surprised me is the amount of kids that were thinking way ahead and said they wanted to do a combination of the three.


I not only learned a lot from these kids, but about the kids as people. I learned that they are kids. Most people think that the kids that want to go to these things are reserved and introverted, but in reality they can go from wild and untamed to utterly focused on solving a problem in less than five minutes. They just need to be properly motivated with a challenge they are actually interested in. Once interested in the topic and challenge -- the most popular was building a bridge that could withstand stimulated earthquakes -- they focused in on the challenge, discussed their options, then got to the fun part of building and testing. Amid all this there were peals of laughter, lame jokes, and kids showing off their newly learned skills.

Most of all, I learned that you can't force a kid to love science. Those that do, just do. They are inspired by a positive influence, the ability to find the creativity in science experiments, and allowed to be kids all the while. While teaching I need to keep this in mind. Instead of hiding my near zealous love of soil chemistry and rocks, I'll let it shine through. Hopefully it will inspire a few of the kids that my life touches to do the same with their chosen love throughout their lives.


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