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Virginia Study Urges Early Science Education

Virginia Study Urges Early Science Education

Among a group of eighth-graders asked in 1988 what careers they wanted as adults, those reporting a science-related career were two to three times more likely to earn science and engineering degrees than those who didn’t indicate such a career interest, concludes a recent study by University of Virginia researchers.

Dr. Robert H. Tai, an assistant professor of science education at the university’s Curry School of Education, and U.Va. researchers ChristineQui Liu, Adam V. Maltese and Xitao Fan analyzed data from a National Educational Longitudinal Study, launched in 1988, to determine whether expectations about science made a difference in future choice of college academic study.

Tai and the research team examined a random national sample of 3,359 students who had first been surveyed in eighth grade and who received college degrees by 2000. The study focused on the survey question, “What kind of work do you expect to be doing when you are 30 years old?”

Relating this question to data collected from the same students years later, the researchers could identify those who had selected the option of science-related jobs compared to students who chose nonscience jobs and subsequently majored in life sciences or physical sciences and engineering. Those youth who wanted to go into the sciences proved two times more likely to obtain their degree in a life science and three times more likely to get a degree in the physical sciences or engineering than students who chose other career options, according to
the study.

“To the question, ‘Does it matter if a person decides early on whether to pursue science?’ The answer is yes,” Tai says.

“While the outcome may not be surprising, in light of the many stories we’ve all heard about the lives of famous scientists, this study put this notion to the test and found a link between early life expectations and future life outcomes,” he adds.

The National Research Council recently reported that the United States’ leadership role in science and technology fields is slipping, and recommended “vastly improving” K-12 education in math and science. In the May 26 issue of Science magazine, an article on the U.Va. research suggests that at a time when schools are focusing on reading and math to beef up standardized test scores, this approach may ignore the importance of an early emphasis on science.

Tai has expressed concern that teachers are increasingly focusing their lessons to ensure better results under the federal No Child Left Behind law. Under the legislation, schools are penalized if their students don’t pass the required standardized tests and don’t make adequate yearly progress.

“Life is not a standardized test. We should use testing to help us learn more about how best to teach children. But kids are not being encouraged to go into science by testing,” Tai says.

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