Motivation is complex. It’s very hard for me to say “do X, and your students will all love science!” It’s easier for me to spot roadblocks that I think inhibit motivation.
So here are some (interrelated) roadblocks that I see to keeping students from loving science:
- An overly simplistic way of presenting science. Attitudes may be changing, but it’s still very common for students to think of scientists as people who work alone to apply a well-defined, logical process to an open question that, once solved, remains solved. In this view, there’s no creativity, collaboration, argument, or question-defining. This starts early on in grade school, is reinforced through media representations, comes through in textbooks, etc. That the actual process of scientific research often happens “back stage” (out of view from outsiders) doesn’t help either.
- An emphasis on content over process. Over the years, science reform efforts have pushed to emphasize scientific processes (and not just science content), but content is still king. A lot of teachers, for example, think that science labs are primarily there to teach content (and not to give people practice at “doing” science). This leads to the idea that science is all about memorizing a bunch of interrelated facts and concepts, which is fun for some people, but not fun for lots of other people.
Attitudes may be changing, but it’s still very common for students to think of scientists as people who work alone to apply a well-defined, logical process to an open question that, once solved, remains solved.”
- An emphasis on following procedures over making decisions. When students see demonstrations or perform experiments in the classroom, it’s often from a given set of instructions. Often, students know what the expected answer is and make no decisions along the way. This is just “playing” science, it’s not actually practicing science. And I think students catch on that you just have to go through the motions. You don’t have to do much thinking, which makes classroom science less engaging.
- An emphasis on authority over argument. I think science isn’t fun for a lot of people because they think it involves being told what to believe about something. People feel like science always has an answer. This comes from emphasizing “final form” or “textbook” science over creatively trying to figure something out. I think most students engage more deeply when they grapple over something that puzzles them, when they have to tease out what the evidence implies, and doesn’t imply about something, when they have to justify their thinking to someone else, and when they have to design some way of testing their models of the situation.
I’m also very tempted to also say “make science more relevant to students’ lives” in order to increase the motivation to learn science. I know of some projects, for example, that get students to measure or track pollution in their communities. That’s pretty darn relevant. Or engineering challenges that get students to solve a community problem. These kinds of projects are motivating. And I think they can be great gateways into science.
But I also think that relevancy alone is not strong enough to take someone all the way through a scientific career. They also have to be curious. And they have to enjoy at least some parts of scientific practice (there’s lots of tedium, too, so people have to love it enough to tolerate that).
Things that don’t work:
- Trying to convince someone that science or math matters.
- Arguing that scientific findings contradict something the person deeply believes in.
Of course, there’s not only one process or one way to get involved in science. But, from what I’ve seen, scientists are usually motivated by the desire to solve a problem or the desire to explore the unknown. It’s something that sticks in their craw, that they can’t let go of easily. And they’re willing to use any tool, or learn any new skill, just so they can solve that dang problem.
Note that I answered a recent question on Quora, which asked about effective ways of motivating students in science. This is my answer, and it was originally posted to Quora.