Family Support Needed for Future Scientists

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Family support makes all the difference in bringing up the next generation of scientists, engineers, and mathematicians, according to researchers at George Mason University.

The researchers say that support from family is the primary factor in encouraging children to consider a future a science, with formal education playing a secondary role.  The findings could shape public policy and encourage community-centered activities designed to foster a love of science.

“We were surprised to learn that the family is more important than we ever thought in terms of igniting the passion of future scientists,” says Lance Liotta, co-director of George Mason’s Center for Applied Proteomics and Molecular Medicine.

The study focuses on what first attracts young people to the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields. The research team surveyed 149 participants in the Aspiring Scientists Summer Internship Program between 2007 to 2013. This competitive internship allows high school and undergraduate students to work alongside Mason professors on real-world research.

The majority–65.5 percent–said experiences with a family member or a childhood activity with family encouragement piqued their initial interest in scientific discovery. 92.6 percent of the students said hands-on lab experience cemented their decision to pursue a career in a STEM field.

“Parents who see the spark of science talent in their kids can reinforce that talent through family projects and nature walks,” says Peggy Agouris, Dean at the College of Science.

“I am inspired by the Aspiring Scientists’ recollections of what initially got them interested in science,” says Amy Adams, director of the program. “When I watch my two-year-old sit in a sea of blocks building creative structures or when his 10-year-old brother is amazed by the results of his chemistry experiment in the kitchen, I recognize, more than ever, that experiences like these may shape their interests in the future.”

Exploring science can be great fun and the upcoming holiday is an ideal time for the whole family to play with science. “I have four grandchildren and love to work on science projects with them during the holidays and on summer vacations,” Liotta says. “Among many of the fun memories, we have made autonomous robots and held robot wars at Thanksgiving. We have also tested new micro airplanes and radio-controlled butterflies, and studied the behavior of cicadas.”

The researchers recommend family-friendly science gifts for the festive season to help fuel the imagination of budding scientists. These findings and recommendations are published in CBE-Life Sciences Education.

Educational Science-Inspired Gift Ideas:

  • Biology/Medicine: microscopes, human body anatomy toys, insect farms, DNA extraction kits
  • Chemistry: slime lab kits, crystal-growing kits, chemistry sets
  • Astronomy/Space Exploration: telescopes, meteorite excavation kits
  • Environment/Weather: alternative energy kits, weather labs
  • Physics/Engineering: blocks, electrical circuit kits, robotics

Family Fun Things to Do During Winter Break:

  • Visit museums
  • Watch science-inspired television shows
  • Perform hands-on science experiments at home
  • Attend a science camp, class, or party
  • Visit a nature park
  • Read science-inspired books
  • Play with interactive science apps
  • Practice coding skills with free online tools
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