Science’s Glass Ceiling of Self-Doubt

The looming changes in the executive branch have many academic scientists worried about this country’s ability to remain at the leading edge of innovation in science and medicine. Some in academia, like MIT president Rafael Reif, are appealing to the incoming leadership by drawing the logical connection between investment in basic science and things we all value: “the nation’s security, prosperity, competitiveness, and health.” Equally important for keeping science and technology in the mind’s eye of the electorate and its government is a bottom-up approach, namely, educating our children to value scientific study and innovation, and to look at science as a means to advance society and make our lives better.

I teach Chemistry 101 at Northwestern University, a gateway course to the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) curriculum at the school, and my classes are composed of more than 90% first-year students.

The first day of Chem 101 is the first day of college for these students, and my message during that first class is one of inclusivity and inspiration, hoping to convey to each and every student: the world needs its best and brightest to push technology forward and find answers to the world’s biggest, most important problems.

My hope is always that this introductory message presents the world of science and technology as their oyster. Yet, for a great number of students, these encouraging proclamations have very little potential for actual encouragement; despite their overall high level of academic achievement and well-roundedness so far, some of these students believe — no, they know — that they are “not math people” or “not science people.” Why take Chemistry at all, you might ask? They are pre-med, pre-vet, pre-physical therapy. But, by their own proclamation, they are “not science-people”, as if their grade in this class were determined long before they walked through the door.

One possibility of where this idea comes from is that science is portrayed in many public and private contexts — including the news media, entertainment, and even at school and at home — as impossible to understand by the “ordinary” person, or in a very stereotypical way (like being limited to lab activities). The former notion — that doing impactful science requires superhuman intellect — is present, and even amplified, in more recent film and TV portrayals of scientists as heroes. This portrayal is harmful to efforts to populate — and to diversify — the STEM disciplines.

Research has shown that students perform better in science-related tasks and learning when they read or hear stories about how famous scientists have struggled, rather than just about how smart and accomplished the scientists are. Other studies have shown that young students, especially young American students, believe that they are born with or without quantitative skills and talent, and that a lack of these inherent skills deters students from engaging in the scientific curriculum fully and inhibits their academic performance in science and math. This attitude has cultural origins: Chinese students overwhelmingly believe that their success in quantitative subjects is proportional to their effort.

There is evidence that the portrayal of science and math as both harder than other disciplines and reserved for the select few has a disproportionately negative effect on girls. The UK energy retailer EDF Energy found, in a poll of about 2000 teenagers and pre-teens, that 32% of females in the study did not believe they were intelligent enough to be scientists, even when they both liked and excelled in science and math in school, and that boys are five times more likely than girls to want to be engineers.

Students of all ages need to know that the very large majority of the time, even for those of us who research and teach in a scientific field for a living, science has been and continues to be a struggle — a long, gradual journey from basic curiosity about the world around us, or a love for solving puzzles, or simply a passion for detail, to the ability to see complex problems in terms of the most basic truths and principles. We need students to know that what is commonly recognized as “scientific intuition” is really knowledge imprinted on our brains by solving scientific puzzles, building machines, and trying to connect aspects of our natural world to one another, and not something hard-wired in our brains from birth.

It is true that we do not know exactly where this concept of inherent talent for science and math comes from. The media and entertainment is certainly not entirely responsible for this problem; it must also be a result of parent-child and teacher-child interaction. It is true that the journalists who describe science and scientific studies and discoveries to the public are often doing their best to make those subjects accessible to the broadest audience, and that scientists give them very few tools to work with. What is also true, however, is that a baseline level of scientific literacy is a basic need of a functioning society, and that our society needs a certain population (and a diverse population) of STEM professionals in public, private, and academic sectors to sustain technological development.

As our children are exposed to more and different types of media outlets, it is more important than ever that we — scientists, teachers, journalists, entertainers, parents — celebrate all forms of scientific inquiry, and convey that math and science ability is not a mystical inherited quality. One just needs curiosity and ambition to embark on a lifetime of studying our natural world, and to be a participant, rather than a spectator, in the next technological revolution.

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