Interest

Scott Pattison

Scott Pattison is a Research Scientist with Cambridge, Massachusetts-based TERC (Technical Education Research Centers) who has been studying and supporting STEM education and learning since 2003, as an educator, program and exhibit developer, evaluator, and researcher. 

You can watch this short video, download the full transcript, and get highlights from the interview below.

What is STEM interest? | Scott Pattison

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Interview Highlights:

How do you conceptualize or think about interest?
When we’re studying early childhood interest, we’re trying to extend [the Four-Phase Model of Interest Development by Hidi and Renninger] to think not just about the individual but about the whole family system and how to conceptualize interest as developing across both parents and kids. Some aspects of interest, like the emotional feeling we get when we’re excited about something, can be felt by both the parent and the child, but some parts of it might be exclusive to the parent, like awareness that some interest is developing. The child might not think “Oh, I’m into birds,” but the parent sees that and they say, “Oh, an interest in birds is developing and I’d like to reinforce that.” The interest is actually distributed across both parent and child. That’s the new framework that we’re trying to develop.

How does interest connect with other concepts like identity, motivation, or attitudes, and how do you distinguish them from science interest, if at all?
Part of the answer probably is that there are some real differences, and part of the answer probably is that they’re just different researchers using different names or parsing the world in different ways. I think traditionally we often talk about interest that’s specific to a topic, an object, or an activity. In contrast, motivation might be more global, describing a generally curious person or a generally engaged person, but that’s not what interest is, at least as we’ve often defined it in this field—it’s, “I’m interested in this particular thing.” There are different things that motivate people, and interest is one of them.

The last thing I would say is that interest is not just a single construct, it’s a constellation of constructs that are connected.

How and why do you think interest matters for science learning?
I think interest is a critical, if not the central, motivator of human behavior. When we’re talking about learning, or choices about which types of activities to do, which careers to choose, who to talk to, or what experiences to seek out, interest plays a huge role in how people decide whether or not to do something. That’s especially the case when you’re talking about noncompulsory experiences. We’re forced to do things in school, but what are we going to choose to do outside of school? Even in school, interest really influences what we decide we’re going to focus on, what classes we should do, things like that. A lot of the theories of career choice, for example, put interest and self-efficacy as the central predictors of why people choose certain careers.

Could a long-term interest be based on one unique experience that sparked it, or do you think people are just not remembering the other factors along the way that continued to support that interest?
It’s probably a combination. One thing we’re learning now is that it’s a false dichotomy to say that an interest never existed before and then it existed. It’s always connected to something before it. There’s this other idea that we construct narratives about ourselves that relate to identity.

What do you think are the most important findings from your study of interest?
One of the things that surprised me from the beginning with my dissertation is what a profound effect little experiences can have on creating science interest pathways. A fun at-home activity or a really memorable experience at a museum can snowball as a child or as an adult keeps talking about the experience, and then those lead the family to reinvest in that interest to provide more experiences and more resources, and the interest pathway continues from there. We’ve seen a lot of examples in which really long-term interest was sparked by these experiences. But one of the things our work is emphasizing is that it’s not just about the child. We’re seeing just as much change happening in the adult or parents as in the child, and as both the adult and child change together, they form this family interest pathway that’s sort of self-motivating over time.

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Scott Pattison
Research Scientist, TERC

"Interest is a complex construct. It starts with an emotion, but as it develops it begins to bring in things like knowledge, values, and self-awareness. All of those things are fed by new interest experiences, and then they remotivate further interest experiences."