CEHD Dean Dr. Joyce Alexander was invited to give two talks in Taiwan sponsored by the Ministry of Science and Technology. In both of her speeches, Dr. Alexander addressed pervasive issues facing the support of STEM interests beginning in early childhood. Teacher education faculty and in particular, science education faculty, were interested in exploring longitudinal studies of science interest development both in Taiwan and cross-nationally and the visit created opportunities for sharing both findings and lessons learned.
Dr. Alexander’s first talk, titled Science: Just for boys? was held October 12 at the National HsinChu University of Education. Her second talk, held at Taiwan Normal University on October 15, was titled A longitudinal study of high school interest in science. In both, she discussed the results of her and Kathy Johnson's 15 year longitudinal study funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation and the Noyce Foundation, that chronicled preschool students, early science interests, and the resulting variety of pathways into (or out of) STEM related interests and careers.
“What’s most unique about our data set is that there have been no studies that have followed individuals prospectively from early childhood to college to examine how interests in STEM careers begin very early and affect later decisions,” Dr. Alexander said.
Dr. Alexander’s study examined early science interests beginning at age 4 longitudinally through age 18 for the same set of male and female students over time. Her results suggest that both child and parent play important roles in the support of early science interests.
“We also know there are gender differences and we have hints that general views about women in science are affecting whether or not girls are interested in science. One thing is clear; the pathways toward high school science interests wouldn't be developed without early support from parents. The parents sets the stage for science interests to trigger through their beliefs about the importance of education, communication, and curiosity, but the child plays an equally important role by driving the conversations, book reading, TV viewing, and often family activities with their interest" Dr. Alexander said.
At age 18, science interests were best predicted for boys by their preschool science learning experiences. For boys, Dr. Alexander argues, science pathways begin very early. For females, two pathways toward later science interest and career plans were prominent.
The first pathway began with preschool science interests and predicted later career goals. This pathway, however, cannot be counted on to increase the number of girls in STEM careers as the number of girls interested in science during the preschool years was significantly lower than the number of boys.
The second pathway illustrates later triggering of science interests for girls through exposure to science in high school courses and out of school experiences. Results show girls' science interests in high school were significantly affected by their views of the classroom science environment including how helpful the teacher was and how relevant and interesting the teacher made science content as well as their perceived societal acceptance of females in particular science careers.
Dr. Alexander was also able to meet with local school leaders and visit a middle school that has been using common intellectual experiences or themes every year to support integration across disciplines. This year's theme is “innovation and great thinkers.”
"Even if the theme of the year isn't a student’s particular interest, this type of experience opens the doors for many connections to be made across disciplines and creates opportunities for interests to flourish," Dr. Alexander said.