When Ben Lillie, director of the podcast and live show The Story Collider, asked his audience on Twitter what it was that excited them about science, the online community of science professionals, journalists and enthusiasts erupted in 140-character stories under the hashtag #ScienceSpark.
My father is an illiterate mechanic with a 3rd-grade education, who let me play with his tools as soon as I could reach them. - Sola Balisane
My #sciencespark was a weird science teacher who brought roadkill into class. In hindsight that was a TERRIBLE idea. - Rose Eveleth
My dad used to read me Bradbury, Asimov, Bova, etc as my bedtime stories - Kelly Hills
And the list went on, from Slim Goodbody, to National Geographic, to Sea World. Lillie himself was surprised at just how little repetition there was. But for everyone, it seemed, there was some formative experience in youth that triggered a life of interest in STEM.
For the Noyce Foundation—the Calfornia-based funder honoring the Intel co-founder—figuring out the origins of these influences that tip a child toward science is worth far more than a hashtag. It’s worth millions in research on how formal and informal science education engages young people in their formative years.
In one particular case, Noyce has committed $1.2 million to SYNERGIES, a four-year study at Oregon State University that is tracking 500 residents of the Parkrose neighborhood in Portland, starting with 5th and 6th graders, to gain a better understanding of how they interact with STEM resources in and out of the classroom. The project site explains:
“The premise of SYNERGIES is that if one better understands how children become interested and engaged with STEM (or not) across settings, time and space, it will be possible to use that information to support a more coordinated network of educational opportunities, involving many partners in and out of school…”
This is crucial knowledge for the Noyce Foundation, and could be extremely powerful for making sure young people go on to pursue continuing education and eventually careers in science. Executive Director Ron Ottinger (read his profile here) is a vocal advocate for getting kids involved in STEM in their daily lives and after school programs, and figuring out why it is that some young people never get turned on to science. That’s why Noyce gives a ton of funding to out-of-classroom science education, but also toward research to document whether these resources are effective, and which factors actually grab hold of kids and don’t let go.
In the case of the SYNERGIES study, tracking a community for four years in multiple settings—including television and internet habits, use of museums and outdoors areas, school lessons—allows researchers to weave together chunks of information we know into a more cohesive picture of how students interact with science as adolescents. In other words, they are watching for the ScienceSparks, and figuring out how to make them.
The Parkrose cohort is in 7th grade now, and the study has yielded some interesting results. For one, interest in STEM topics plummets for many between 5th and 8th grades. Also, activities like going to the library, hiking, playing with science kits, gardening, or just taking stuff apart, all correlate strongly with increased interest in STEM.
If the OSU study bears fruit, Ottinger and Noyce will no doubt be able to put the wisdom to good use, as they are one of the country’s largest funders of non-classroom science education. Noyce pours funding into programs like the Girl Scouts, 4-H, after school education, museums and science centers, all to instill the love of science into young people.
You can imagine how, if they have a better idea of what buttons such programs should be pushing or not pushing, philanthropists like Noyce could get far more bang for the buck, and light thousands of sparks under the burners of a whole generation of nascent scientists, engineers and mathematicians.