Inquiring Minds

Science Defiance
Underperforming in science for an odd reason

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Maori children in New Zealand, rural children in Taiwan, children of Mayan descendants in Belize, the Altai children of Siberia, children of the Chippewa tribe in North Dakota, and even children in public schools in northern New Hampshire—disparate groups, to be sure, but many children in these regions lack interest in science, and struggle to connect their experience with science in school to the world around them.

That's "lack of interest," not "lack of aptitude," emphasize Michael Middleton and Eleanor Abrams, associate professors of education who are seeking ways to tackle this worldwide dilemma. Following initial rounds of interviews with children, parents, village elders and others, the professors believe that indigenous and rural schoolchildren shun science because it seems disconnected from their daily lives and to excel at it might require moving away from home.

"The kids do understand the subtext of what's happening around them. They are thinking 'If I do well, they're going to make leave-so I'm not going to do well,'" says Abrams. "The parents in the village are saying the only way to succeed is to leave here, but the children don't want to." Whereas urban children are relatively prone to move around during life, children raised in often tight-knit rural communities oppose the idea-particularly if they are indigenous people, who can face cultural barriers elsewhere.

This resulting rejection of science is particularly frustrating because life in rural areas gives a rich grounds on topics that are taught in class, say the UNH researchers. "We can go into these villages and interview kids in 6th and 7th grade, ask them why do plants grow in certain places and other interesting science questions, and they can tell you lots and lots of information about science and the environment. But they still say 'I'm not good at science,'" says Middleton.

The two began to focus on this issue after Abrams was in Taiwan in 2005, presenting research on inquiry in the classroom, and met a researcher seeking way to increase scientific literacy in indigenous children in a remote village. When she realized that motivation was the problem, she approached fellow education department professor Middleton, a former high school science and math teacher who specializes in the topic. The joint project has expanded into Central America through an association with a Belize-New Hampshire teacher program, as well as New Zealand and Siberia. They hope to add Chippewa children and children north of the Notches in New Hampshire soon.

So far, the findings are a complicated mix of the universal and the specific. (Nobody said teaching was easy!) For example, children in rural Belize seem to be more interested in science than those in rural Taiwan, and say this is partly because the growth of eco-tourism along the Caribbean coast has shown them that the knowledge can be turned into interesting work without leaving home. Also, while classes in Belize are taught in English, the national language, that country had more teachers from the area who could switch to the native language "to explain things kids might not get in English," and who can draw on local examples in class. "When they talk about the water cycle, they use brooks or groundwater to demonstrate," says Middleton.

Across countries, they have found that raising interest in science education includes strong student-teacher relationships, the use of materials meaningful to kids and continuing academic support. They admit that this list wouldn't surprise anybody involved in education; however, they conclude that with indigenous children, there is no "best" way to apply these rules; it depends on the culture.

"How this occurs depends on the local context," says Middleton. "Our next step is to work with teachers in each community to support them in using their knowledge about local language, values and the natural environment in order to enhance students' interest and achievement in science."

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