have better career options than those
But career readiness isn’t the only
reason to understand and value
science. Many everyday decisions are
informed by scientific literacy and
by one’s ability to think about and
analyze situations using evidence.
Concerns about the environment, the
food supply, health, and energy rank
high among the major issues facing
communities and society. As such,
scientific literacy plays a central role
in preparing citizens, a fundamental
purpose of secondary education.
Through our own and others’
studies, we’ve learned a lot about why
and under what conditions students
value their science learning. With
funding from the National Science
Foundation, we observed approximately 400 science classes in diverse
schools and collected in-the-moment
reports from students about what they
were thinking and feeling during the
classes we observed. As a result, we
were able to tie what was happening
in the classrooms to students’ motivational states and engagement.
Why It Matters
Several teachers we observed were
amazingly adept at regularly promoting the value of science, both
through explicit statements about why
the day’s content was important in
life and through seemingly off-hand
comments that weren’t about specific
course content at all.
For example, Donna, a 7th grade
science teacher, asked one of her students to “explain what speed means.”
The student replied, “Speed is d/t—
and I don’t really care about speed.
It’s just a term we have to memorize
for science. It’s not really all that
important to think about speed in
life.” To this, Donna responded,
You play an instrument, right? Does it
matter what speed you play the song?
Can you play it as fast or slow as you
want, and will it still sound good? Or
how about getting to class on time? Do
you need to be worried about speed?
These two examples aren’t just about
science. Speed is everywhere. You use it
all the time.
During this same class period,
Donna learned that a student was
absent from class because of an ortho-
dontics appointment. She jokingly
commented, “Don’t orthodontists
know that they’re taking students
out of science class and that science
is kind of important? After all, they
had to do well in science to become
orthodontists!” Donna’s comments
were rather ordinary, but they empha-
sized how all aspects of students’ lives
related to science. Not coincidentally,
Donna’s students reported the highest
science interest levels of all the stu-
dents whose teachers and classrooms
By and large, however, teachers like
Donna have been rare in our studies.
We more often observed missed
opportunities for teachers to promote
the value of science. In some cases,
teachers felt pressured to get through
enormous amounts of content and
believed they didn’t have time to make
those connections. The inevitable consequence, however, is that many students disengage from science.
Four Kinds of Value
Research and common sense tell us
that when we see value in an activity,
we’re more likely to engage in it. The
good news for educators is that value
can take many different forms. Individuals don’t have to perceive the same
value in a given activity to be motivated to engage in it.
For example, one of us (Jen) is a
runner. She runs primarily because
she derives great enjoyment and
peace from it. In contrast, a friend
of hers drags herself out to run even
though she finds running unpleasant;
she believes that anyone who’s truly
fit must be a good runner. The two
women see different value in running,
but both types of value motivate them
to put on their running shoes each
day and ultimately make them better
The same principle holds true
for academics. Students don’t have
to all see the same value in what
they’re learning. Here are four different ways your students can come
to value science—and four different
approaches you can take to promote
Poets say science takes away
from the beauty of the stars—
mere globs of gas atoms.
I too can see the stars on a
desert night, and feel them.
But do I see less or more?
The vastness of the heavens
stretches my imagination—stuck
on this carousel my little eye
can catch one-million-year-old
light. A vast pattern—of which I
am a part.... What is the pattern,
or the meaning, or the why? It
does not do harm to the mystery
to know a little about it.
—Richard P. Feynman
From The Feynman Lectures on Physics