Did You Like High School Science?

Chances are that anyone reading a blog called Periodic Tabloid will have good memories of enjoying high-school science classes. A fondness for high-school science isn’t universally shared, however. Sadly, there are people who harbor a negative association with their high-school science experience.

Can this be changed? Are there ways to raise the engagement level of students with science when they are still young and not yet fixed in their ways? If students are more interested, do they perform better?

It’s easy to speculate on answers to such questions, but a couple of psychologists actually designed an experiment to gather data that tests their ideas (Science 326: 5958 [4 December 2009], 1410–1412). The relatively simple hypothesis is this: if students are asked to divine the personal relevance of science to their own lives, they will be more energized by the material and achieve at a higher level.

The result is wonderful: students who lacked belief in their own abilities to do well in science went up a notch or two in success when asked to make connections between science and their own lives. There isn’t any effect on students who already thought highly of their abilities, and there is no difference in the results along gender or racial lines.

So, encouraging students to discern relevance between science and their lives pays off.

My take on how to capitalize on this finding is twofold. First, display science as a deeply human activity by telling the stories of its practitioners: Priestley being run out of town by a frenzied mob; Lavoisier losing his head to the guillotine; Pauling alienating colleagues with his views on vitamin C. And second, create practical examples of science affecting our everyday lives:  the chemical reactions that go on in the battery that powers your essential cell phone; the acid-base equilibrium that determines whether a drug cures your disease or makes you sicker. Surely, readers can come up with more ideas….

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Periodic Tabloid is an ongoing record of the activities of the Chemical Heritage Foundation’s staff and scholars, whose work tells the story of chemistry over the centuries up to modern times. Stay tuned for behind-the-scenes coverage of our events, exclusive supplemental materials to our publications, analysis of pressing contemporary scientific issues, and much more.