Let's do science: Girls More Interested in Doing Science than Being Scientists

By: Nancy Ordman

Researchers from New York University and Princeton discovered that using an action verb — do science — when encouraging young girls to get involved with science elicits more involvement than simply suggesting that they “be scientists.”

The researchers point out the difference between doing science as an activity and being a scientist as identity. Particularly for girls in this study, promoting the identity of “scientist” is much less effective than providing the opportunity to do science.

The research, led by Marjorie Rhodes of NYU, comprised four studies with children, both male and female, aged four to nine years old. One group of children heard a description of science as identity, using language like “Let’s be scientists!” The other group learned about science as an action: “Let’s do science!” After this introduction, all children played a science game designed to illustrate the scientific method. Persistence at playing the game — the length of time a child played the game — was used to measure interest in science.

Georgia Tech regional science fair / Image credit: George Jumaraan

Results differed between boys and girls and between children of different age cohorts. Younger boys (ages 4 and 5) showed more persistence if science was presented as an action; boys older than 5 were more persistent if science was described as an identity.

Girls of all ages, however, showed more persistence when they heard science characterized as an action than as an identity. Rhodes posits that girls are already familiar with the twin stereotypes of women as unable to be scientists and males as successful in scientific careers. Previous research that Rhodes conducted with Princeton’s Sarah-Jane Leslie found that popular television shows treat the profession of scientist as an identity rather than as an active occupation. Children can readily absorb this message, perhaps planting the seeds of gender bias toward science very early in development.

(TV and film roles underrepresent women in STEM careers: read this article to learn more.)

Changing language in these TV programs from the passive, identity-based approach where science is a profession to science as an active and engaging activity could help eliminate one source of bias. More generally, parents, teachers or other adults who work with young children should emphasize the doing of science to help inculcate the idea that science is for girls as well as boys.

(Astronaut doll designed by a NASA-American Girl Dolls collaborative debuted in the 2017 holiday season.)

Psychological Science published this study.