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Dr. Sten Odenwald Headshot

Where Has Our Children's Thrill of Discovery Gone?

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KIDS SCIENCE
JGI/Jamie Grill via Getty Images
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For most of human history we were hunter-gatherers. We went out into the wilderness, strategized how to find food, and bring it back to camp. Much of this instinct and thrill for hunting still remains in us today.

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A child exploring the world finds a universe in a flower (Credit: Meridian Charter Township)

We have it in our genes, and in the way our brains are built, to find pleasure and excitement and get a huge adrenalin surge when we are 'on the hunt'. It is deeply connected to our most primitive "reptilian brain": the so called limbic system. Part of the hunt is to discover traces of what you are looking for and follow those traces to the "prize." We use every tool at our disposal, and over time learn new techniques and build new tools, to insure a successful hunt. We then tell everyone in our tribe how we snagged that elusive deer or gazelle so that our social unit benefits.

The thrill that children and scientists feel when they have uncovered something new in their world is also part of this same legacy of hunting and gathering. It is a big reason why science has advanced so quickly in the last 100 years and has now transformed much of the social landscape. Children experience this thrill every day as they learn about their environment and start to internalize its many rules and regulations. How long can I stand on one foot and keep my balance? What do caterpillars turn into? How many stars are in the sky? They ask serious questions, goofy questions, and questions that few adults ever consider because there are more important things to do with their time. But children have the time, and so they eventually start asking questions that even their parents can't answer. Why does the sun shine? Where does beach sand come from?

2014-06-06-ChildrenExploring.jpgChildren explore the Exploration Experience exhibit at the Marshall Space Flight Center. (Credit: NASA/MSFC/Doug Stoffer)

They ride this tidal wave of discovery until about the time they enter middle school then something strange happens. A variety of surveys suggest that students 'turn off' to science and no longer see it as either interesting or important to their lives.

The Junior Achievement USA Foundation's 2013 Teens and Careers survey revealed a substantial year-over-year decline in teens' interest in science-related fields in their 12 years of conducting the survey. While 46 percent of all teens surveyed in 2013 showed interest in pursuing either a STEM or medical-related job, this was a dramatic 15 percent decrease in interest from the 2012 survey.

This drop off in interest seems to be global. For example, a poll of 4,000 children in the UK aged nine to 14 found that youngsters find science less inspiring and relevant to their lives as they move from primary to secondary school. While 47 percent of nine-year-olds said they enjoy science, this drops to 38 percent among 12-year-olds and 34 percent among 14-year-olds.

When students in Canada were surveyed, 78 percent of those between the ages of 12 and 13 said they are interested in science. But that dropped to 58 percent for students 17-18 years old, the report notes. "We have learned from attitude surveys that when students are younger they have great interest in science. As they get older, however, science is seen more as 'complicated' and 'difficult,' as one survey said, versus 'fun' or 'inspiring.' Surveys also tell us that as they get older, an increasing number of students not only abandon the idea of STEM-related careers, but fail to see how this education will be relevant at all to any future job."

2014-06-06-ChildDiscovering.jpgA child's curiosity can take them to places we have never dreamed of! (Credit: Minne Mom Blog)

So why is this happening?

If you ask a scientist they will look at you with incredulity. Are children not getting the message that thousands of new planets have been discovered, we have an SUV-sized nuclear rover exploring mars, and there is a frantic search in progress for dark matter? How about in medical research where we can use your DNA to trace human migrations going back 100,000 years, and create new molecules to fight cancer? Or in engineering where scientists are experimenting with teleportation? How can anyone's childhood passions for discovery not be set on fire by the implications of this research? Are adults giving their children the subliminal message that science is impractical, they were never very good at math, and look at us, we were much happier going into careers with a quicker pay-off like business or retail?

Yes STEM careers are a daunting challenge, but do you seriously think it is that much harder than being a lawyer, or a surgeon? You have to invest at least 10,000 hours of quality time to become proficient in any skill. In middle school you are still a long way from the front lines of a career, but what do you expect? Math is hard. Science is hard. So is being a proficient batter or chess player.

In the end, we have to return to having our children re-discover the thrill of discovery when they were five years old. Scientists go to "That Place" every day. It is the battery that winds us up to willingly take up the challenge of learning something hard in order to take the next step, and confronting a largely indifferent society. By middle school, students should have had many more opportunities to make their own personal discoveries about the world, and armed with their new tools in language and math, to take the next steps towards mastery. Not to become scientists, but to become adults who still value discovery of new ideas over the calcification of old ways of thinking.