Raising Interest and Learning in the Sciences

Back in high school, we were required to participate in science fairs. We formed groups and attempted to discover something new. Our school was a science high school so we really took great pride in engaging in district, regional and national science competitions. One year, I was a member of a group that proposed to use bamboo both as a reaction vessel and catalyst for the formation of either ethanol or methane gas.  Experiences such as taking part in a science fair takes a considerable amount of time and effort. It is only reasonable then to ask if these exercises actually contribute to science learning. Recent evidence from research shows that these activities may also lead to a decline in scientific knowledge.

Using data from thousands of 6th and 8th grade students in the United States, Liu and Schunn from the University of Pittsburgh find that these extracurricular science activities do raise interest in science but unfortunately, these negatively correlate with learning:

Above copied from Liu, A. S., & Schunn, C. D. (2018). The effects of school-related and home-related optional science experiences on science attitudes and knowledge. Journal of Educational Psychology. Advance online publication.

Optional and additional experiences in the sciences inside and outside school do raise interest in the sciences. However, these apparently do not help in learning science. The negative effect on learning is even higher with school sponsored science activities. The study considers the following as examples of such experiences:

  • I talked to a science teacher about good science books or websites. 
  • I was part of a group that got together outside of class time to study for science class. 
  • I did my homework or projects for science class with other students. 
  • I did an extra-credit project for science class. 
  • I was part of a science club after school or on the weekends.

The study does not examine the quality of these optional school experiences in science. Whether these activities are aligned with the knowledge and scientific sensemaking assessments is also unknown. Most of these activities are peer-driven and the lack of a supervisor who is knowledgeable in the sciences may contribute to a general lack of quality. The authors note, "Many out-of-school programs are primarily staffed by teachers who lack a STEM degree, and who report feeling unqualified to teach science (Knapp, D. (2007). A longitudinal analysis of an out-of-school science experience. School Science and Mathematics, 107, 44–51.); they may be ill-equipped to guide students and correct any existing misconceptions about science, or may even unintentionally promote them."