How do children categorize science ability?

    • Topic: Social Interactions

    • Location: Discovery Center

    As children grow, they begin to develop ways to categorize themselves and their surroundings. For example, they may create simple categories like dog vs. cat, or car vs. boat. However, as children gain more knowledge of the world around them, they may create more complex categories and seek to categorize characteristics of people. For example, they may form categories like scientists vs. non-scientists, or those who are knowledgeable about a topic vs. those who aren’t. We are interested in exploring how children assign STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) ability and career potential to different genders and races.

    In this study, children (ages 4-8 years) hear a series of stories about characters of different genders and races performing STEM-related activities (e.g. building a boat, growing a plant). Children will then be asked questions about the characters, such as who performed the action better, whether a character’s performance was due to knowledge or effort, and whether they think each character wants to be a scientist. In addition, children will be asked about their own career aspirations and interests.

    We predict that by age 4, children will begin to categorize themselves and others in regards to their perceived STEM ability, competency, and potential. This research could potentially help us think about how to develop more inclusive curricula for children learning about STEM.

    This research is being conducted in Living Laboratory at the Museum of Science by psychology researchers from the Boston University Social Learning Lab

        » Social Learning Laboratory at Boston University

    Activities to Try in the Discovery Center

    Little Scientists

    At the Discovery Center‘s Experiment Station, encourage your child to try the experiment of the day. Notice the type of language you use to praise his or her work. Language choices can impact children’s perception of their own abilities. Studies have found that when children are praised for their effort (e.g. “You worked so hard!), they tend to believe that - even when they struggle - they can still improve their abilities over time. However, children who are praised for their smarts (e.g. “You’re so smart!”) are more likely to see ability as fixed, with each person having a set amount of “smarts”.

    Studies have also shown that children are sensitive to stereotypes about groups of people from a very early age. How might the language that adults use when praising someone else (e.g. someone of the same gender as your child) impact how your child sees his or her own abilities?

    Activities to Try at Home

    Artists and Engineers

    The next time you encounter an artwork with your child (whether on the street, in your home, or at a museum, etc.), ask your child to imagine what the artist who created that piece might be like. Try this with several different artworks. What characteristics does your child use when imagining the artists? Do you notice your child using any common characteristics across the different artists s/he imagines?

    Then, when you encounter something an engineer may have designed (e.g. bridges, cars, buildings, etc.), ask your child to imagine what they think the engineer who designed the object might be like. What characteristics does s/he use when imagining the engineers? Does s/he use similar or different characteristics when imagining what an artist vs. an engineer might be like?

Research Spotlight

Contact Living Laboratory staff:

livinglaboratory@mos.org