Nancy Staus is a Senior Research Associate at Oregon State University in Corvallis, Oregon. Her research focuses such areas of science education as the role of emotion in science learning, STEM learning in informal environments, and STEM interest development during adolescence.
You can watch this short video, download the full transcript, and get highlights from the interview below.
What’s your working definition of interest?
I’ve been working on a longitudinal project called Synergies in which we’ve been examining how STEM interest develops over time and in an underserved community in Portland, Oregon. We’re thinking about interest as a multidimensional construct and we’re measuring it in a large-scale survey with a lot of kids participating, as well as in a smaller number of interviews and case studies, which really add richness to our understanding. In the survey, we are asking questions that pertain to both the affective—the liking or attitudinal portion of interest—and also the cognition part, their knowledge of a topic. We’re trying to look at all of those different parts of interest development at the same time and then fleshing it out with the interview data, which also helps us understand how kids are finding or not finding the resources in their environment that allow them to support their interest development over time.
We find where kids struggle to find resources in their environment and then we act as brokers or facilitators to try to find those. We are trying to help move the system in a positive direction so that more youth have a chance to engage in STEM activities.
Can you talk a little more about how you study interest in your longitudinal study?
In our study, we chose to follow youth through middle school (which is 6th through 8th grade in the school district we’re working in) because the literature shows that this seems to be a critical time in STEM interest development. Research has shown that there’s a pretty steep decline in STEM interest during these years. We’re in the 8th year of a 10-year longitudinal study, and by the end of it we’ll have five full cohorts of youth that go through middle school.
How and why do you think interest matters for science learning?
Well, interest is a strong precursor to learning. People aren’t going to learn about what they’re not interested in. So I think it’s very important. I think it’s been understudied and undervalued in education for a long time. Learners are really motivated—people of any age are very motivated—to learn about something in which they have an interest. I don’t think it would change education or curricula a huge amount to have a little more focus on interest.
The concept of interest is often associated with attitude, motivation, and identity. How do these connect with interest and how do you distinguish science interest from these other concepts?
They’re very connected, absolutely. It is hard to distinguish between them. Attitudes don’t necessarily correlate strongly with interest, because you can have a feeling or an opinion about something that you’re not interested in. Motivation is very much enmeshed in our understanding of interest because interest itself is a motivational variable. You are motivated just by your own personal goals to go out in the environment and find resources that help you sustain that interest.
As for identity, it’s very much entwined in interest as well because as you move into the later phases of individual interest, you’re also developing a stronger identity as a person who does this sort of thing or knows a lot about this sort of thing. There’s a lot of overlap in all of this work. The concepts support each other, and we should look at multiple constructs at the same time whenever we can to see how they affect each other.
What led you to study interest or to include it in your work?
The reason we chose interest as our outcome instead of something like achievement is that it’s becoming clear in the research literature that interest in science and STEM is actually a stronger predictor of persistence, leading to STEM majors and even STEM careers, than are other outcomes such as achievement.
What are some findings or tidbits you’ve learned about interest through Synergies?
I think one of the really salient points about interest research that science educators should keep in mind is that interest can only develop through those phases from situational to individual through the ability to reengage with the topic or activity over time. There have to be opportunities for the learner to keep doing those activities.
Is there anything else about interest in science learning that you wanted to share?
I think the big “aha!” finding from the Synergies Project is just how important out-of-school factors are, not just parents but all out-of-school factors, in supporting interest development. We’re finding this from our surveys and other data, and I know others have found this too. For the youth whose interest in a variety of STEM dimensions increased over time, the most important predictors were parents and participation in out-of-school activities, as well as some personal factors like relevance, knowledge about science or STEM, and enjoyment.
What are the big questions in informal science education, science communication, and even formal science communication for the next five or 10 years regarding interest?
I think the big idea is this concept of an ecosystem approach, this realization that kids are only in school for X hours a day, and from what we know of how interest develops, there’s a big need for reengagement and support, particularly at early stages of interest. So it’s just not possible for the school to help kids develop these individual interests that are so important for persistence in STEM over time. We can’t expect them to do that and then be disappointed that they don’t. It’s absolutely time for us to look outside of the school. The schools are a very important central part of the STEM ecosystem, but they have to be willing to work with other STEM providers in the community and vice versa. We need to think about STEM interest development as a pathway that kids are navigating and try to find ways to facilitate that.
"I think one of the really salient points about interest research to keep in mind is that interest can only develop through those phases from situational to individual through the ability to reengage with the topic or activity over time. So there have to be opportunities for the learner to keep doing those activities."