Gwen Dewar, Ph.D.
posted in Mom Stories
Will your child grow up with an appreciation for science? Or will she become a math-and-science illiterate, somebody who shrinks away from learning and suffers a lifetime of lost opportunities?
The answer doesn’t depend on you alone — far from it. But a new study suggests that parents play an important role in selling the importance of science to their children. And that might make a big difference in the kind of education kids get before they set off for college.
A new study offers evidence. Judith Harackiewicz and her colleagues tracked 181 high school students for three years. Half the students were randomly assigned to a rather sneaky intervention group. Their parents received pamphlets in the mail about the importance of math and science in a wide variety of careers. The pamphlets came only twice – once in the 10th grade and again in the 11th. And in the summer after students graduated from high school, researchers asked parents and students some questions.
They also reviewed the students’ school records.
Apparently, those pamphlets had an effect. Kids whose parents had received pamphlets took more math and science courses during the last two years of high school. I haven’t read the study itself, and can’t comment on the statistics used. But according to this press release
“The effect amounted to roughly an extra semester of advanced math or science, including courses such as algebra II, trigonometry, pre-calculus, calculus, statistics, chemistry, and physics.”
Which sounds like a pretty large effect as these things go. As Harackiewitz notes, “It’s well known that children of more educated parents take more math and science courses in high school. The effect of our intervention was just as strong as the parent education effect.”
And the pamphlets – rather than random chance – seem to be responsible for the effect because
1. mothers who received the pamphlets rated math and science as more useful, and
2. students in pamphlet group had more career discussions with their parents during the last year of high school.
So score a big point in favor of the positive influence parents can have on their children. If parents can steer teenagers toward better science preparation, what can they do for much younger children?
By the time students hit high school, they’ve already formed a lot of opinions about math and science. Many opportunities have already come and gone. If parents can encourage positive attitudes long before high school, mightn’t they have an even bigger effect?
It’s plausible. One of my kids recently shared with me a scene from her classroom: Virtually all of the girls in the class said they didn’t like dinosaurs.
I realize I’m biased, but seriously, that’s bunk. If you don’t think dinosaurs are interesting you either (a) have no curiosity and imagination or (b) are adopting some sort of group-think, fashionable attitude to fit in with your peers.
Since all the dinosaur dislikers were girls, and not the random sprinkling you’d expect if it were about individual differences of personality, I favor the second explanation. Somehow, in this little microculture, it’s not cool for girls to like dinosaurs. And that’s precisely where a science-enthusiast parent can step in, shake things up, and steer kids away from a self-destructive, door-closing science illiteracy.
So you don’t have to be a scientist or mathematician to improve your child’s education. You don’t even have to be good at math and science. You just have to value math and science — pass that value along. That’s not too difficult, is it?
For more thoughts about the ways parents can raise science-savvy kids, see my last post “Rescue bored kids with the new, exotic, and offbeat,” as well as “Be permissive, raise a scientist.” In addition, check out my parenting science pages on science education and preschool math.
Melbourne aquarium by Fir0002/wikimedia commons
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