How Teens Benefit From Reading About the Struggles of Scientists

Originally published on NPR’s MindShift on May 10, 2016.

What kind of people can become scientists?  When a group of researchers posed that question to ninth- and 10th-graders, almost every student gave empowering responses, such as “People who work hard” or “Anyone who seems interested in the field of science.”

But despite these generalized beliefs, many of these same students struggled to imagine themselvesas scientists, citing concerns such as “I’m not good at science” and “Even if I work hard, I will not do well.”

It’s understandable that students might find imagining themselves as scientists a stretch — great achievements in science get far more attention than the failed experiments, so it’s easy to see a scientist’s work as stemming from an innate talent. Additionally, several science fields have a long way to go to be more inclusive of women and underrepresented minorities.

But for high school students, learning more about some of the personal and intellectual struggles of scientists can help students feel more motivated to learn science. Researchers at Teachers College, Columbia University and the University of Washington designed an intervention to “confront students’ beliefs that scientific achievement reflects ability rather than effort by exposing students to stories of how accomplished scientists struggled and overcame challenges in their scientific endeavors.”

During the study, the students read one of three types of stories about Albert Einstein, Marie Curie and Michael Faraday:

  1. Intellectual struggle stories: stories about how scientists “struggled intellectually,” such as making mistakes while tackling a scientific problem and learning from these setbacks.
  2. Life struggle stories: stories about how scientists struggled in their personal lives, such as persevering in the face of poverty or lack of family support.
  3. Achievement stories: stories about how scientists made great discoveries, without any discussion of concurrent challenges.

Researchers found that students who heard either type of “struggle story” improved their science performance post-intervention, relative to students in the control group.  The effect was especially pronounced for lower-performing students, for whom “exposure to struggling stories led to significantly better science-class performance than low-performing students who read achievement stories.” In addition, students who read struggle stories reported feeling more personally connected to the scientists.

Podcast-SquareMany high school students view scientific ability as a fixed trait that is not responsive to effort. As the researchers wrote: “When students struggle in science classes, they may misperceive their struggle as an indication that they are not good at science and will never succeed.” By identifying a scientist’s struggles and introducing the growth mindset he or she applied to accomplish great works, the students were able to empathize with the scientists during their own struggles. The researchers identified stories as a learning tool because of stories’ ability to influence readers’ beliefs.

Struggles in the Science Classroom

Kristen Blabac, a middle and high school science teacher at Montrose School in Medfield, Massachusetts, says that the results of this study make a lot of sense to her: “Scientists don’t just wake up one day and make a great discovery. It takes years of study, research, learning from mistakes and trying again.” When students hear the backstory to a discovery —  even briefly —  it can help demystify the work of scientists.

Montrose began a schoolwide emphasis on “growth mindset” three years ago, and Blabac says that the science classroom is fertile ground for teaching teens about the power of embracing setbacks. Take the scientific process: Students begin an experiment by coming up with a hypothesis. If they come to the end of the process and discover they cannot support this hypothesis, students can feel defeated. “They might think, ‘Something went wrong. This is bad. I can’t do science,’ ” says Blabac.  To counteract this, she spends time helping students reframe their thinking, asking them, “Did you learn something from this process? If you did this a second time, what would you do differently?”

These are the types of questions real scientists ask themselves, says Blabac, who keeps pictures of diverse scientists around her room to help students “put a face to the discovery.”

Recently, Blabac brought in several local scientists to judge the sixth-grade science fair — partly because interacting with them helps students counteract the mental image of “an elusive scientist in a sterile lab with a white lab coat.” As her students pointed out, “they came in dressed like regular people,” and they talked about their families, their hobbies and their interests outside of science.

One of the judges, a chemical engineer at MIT, thanked students for sharing not just their successes, but also “their mishaps, what they learned from their experiments, and what they would do next if they were continuing the work.” One of those “mishaps” occurred in a group that tried to grow sugar crystals from three types of sugar. “They outlined a great plan,” says Blabac, “and it didn’t work at all! No sugar crystals. They could have gotten discouraged, but instead they decided to do the experiment again — after the science fair is over.  There’s no grade tied to this — they just want to figure out why their experiment didn’t work.”

Montrose head of school Karen Bohlin said that these experiences and stories help students reframe scientific “struggle” from a negative to a positive.  When students hear about how real scientists engage in trial and error and learn from their mistakes —  and then practice this process themselves — they begin to appreciate the importance of developing “intellectual carefulness, intellectual honesty and intellectual humility —  habits of mind essential to doing good science.”

Or as Blabac  tells her students, “If you only do the experiments you already know the answer to, you are not moving science forward.  Scientific advancement always requires taking some risks. We can learn a lot of valuable information from ‘failed’ experiments.”