Interest and motivation are linked to science learning and future career choices

January 1st, 2016

This Knowledge Base article was written collaboratively with contributions from Grace Troxel and CAISE Admin. This article was migrated from a previous version of the Knowledge Base. The date stamp does not reflect the original publication date.


Fostering interest has long been an objective in the design of informal science education (Bell et al., 2009). Rather than merely positive emotions or momentary attraction, interest includes stored knowledge, stored value, and feelings that influence both immediate and long-term engagement, questioning behavior, and activity of individuals or groups of individuals around a specific topic. Individual interest includes curiosity, surprise, and attraction, all of which are seen as precursors of focused action or behavior (Silvia, 2006). Fundamental to the field of ISE is the expectation that programs will shift participants’ interest in the given content, among a variety of other outcomes (awareness, knowledge or understanding; engagement or interest; attitude; behavior; skills; or other project-specific outcomes) (Friedman, 2008Kinds of learning).

With motivation, participants begin to ask curiosity questions and seek answers as they engage with content (Renninger, 2007, p. 2). Within a “learning ecology” composed of learning opportunities in the home, community, peers, work, school, books, and virtual resources (Barron, 2006), people become active in structuring and extending their own learning, using their discretionary time to engage in their interest. This is seen across all sectors of informal learning, as individuals engage in activities that are personally fulfilling. Particular areas of directed learning include text-based informational sources, the creation of new informal activity contexts, exploration of media, the pursuit of formal or structured learning opportunities, and the development of knowledge networks such as mentoring relationships (Barron, 2006).

Findings from Research and Evaluation 

Early interest is linked to science learning & career choices

Childhood interest in science has been identified as a potential indicator for later career choices. Particularly, middle school has been identified as the time when the majority of youth begin to make decisions about curricular choices for continued study in high school and beyond (Akos, Lambie, Milsom, & Gilbert, 2007; Adams, Gupta, & Cutomaccio, 2014Tai, Liu, Maltese, & Fan, 2006). In a nationally representative study, Tai and colleagues found that U.S. middle school students who expressed an interest in science careers in the 8th grade were three times more likely to earn baccalaureate degrees in the sciences than those who did not indicate interest (Tai et al., 2006). For 65% of scientists with advanced degrees who were interviewed in 2010 (Maltese & Tai, 2010), their interest in science had started before middle school. For these chemists and physicists, 52% of females reported that their initial interest was sparked by education-related activities (school, camps, science competitions, teacher demonstrations), while most males (57%) recounted self-initiated activities (play with blocks, curiosity).

ISE opportunities can develop interest and sustain motivation

Interest is often recorded as either “present” or “not present” in relation to a domain in research studies, but because interest evolves through the interaction of a person with the environment, interest can change (Renninger, 2007, p.4). Interest is topic dependent, so exposure over time to a broad variety of contents and delivery formats (such as those common across ISE) increases the odds of sparking a situational interest (Csikszentmihalyi, 1996, p. 163), which may then bloom into the desire to purse additional experiences. Those with little or no interest in a topic may need support and structure to help them begin generating their own questions and to develop the knowledge and skills needed as they seek to answer them. Those with already well-developed interests need support that enables them to stretch their present understanding. Continued encouragement and support by parents, caregivers, peers, and educators can help mature an interest into deeper knowledge, scientific ways of thinking, and a source of personal identity (Barron et al., 2009Bell et al., 2009) for children and adults alike.

Museums and other informal learning contexts have the ability to play a role in engaging children and youth in STEM (Bell et al., 2009). The museum environment provides opportunities for youth to connect with science in personally meaningful ways, develop their own science identities, and consider pursuing science careers through exhibits, activities, and extended programs (Adams & Gupta, 2013; McCreedy & Dierking, 2013). ISE settings have shown a variety of positive impacts on participants’ interests in and motivations toward continued learning or engagement with STEM concepts and content (see other portions of the wiki). Though rigorous longitudinal studies have not been conducted that link STEM careers with ISE experiences, numerous scientists have credited early experiences specifically with museums as influential to their choice of a career in science. In a study by the Cosmos Corporation (1998) for NSF, visits to museums were cited by surveyed scientists as their most memorable informal science experiences as youth. They also cited these experiences as the most influential source of ideas still used in the present. In 2014, the Pew Research Center found that 8% and 7% of responding scientists attributed “childhood experiences in natural parks, science museums, star gazing, chemistry set” and “books, movies, TV on science e.g., Cosmos series, biographies of scientists, and science fiction” as being critical childhood experiences that initiated their science paths (Funk, Rainie, & Page, 2015, p. 70).

Directions for Future Research 

In the early 2000’s there was a doctoral dissertation (U of TN) that looked at teaching statistics to high schoolers using three environments – science center, classroom, and the home. (Note that the “home” environment was fashioned at the school in the media room with free-choice to play related games to the topic, or commercial entertainment games.)  The findings were ostensibly looking at types of learners and who was more effective in a certain environment; those results were weak, since learners adapted to each environment. However, the data clearly showed this…that in the science center environment, Motivation increased, while Performance really didn’t change, and Understanding didn’t rise. In the classroom environment, Motivation didn’t peak, nor did Understanding, but Performance did. In the home environment was where Understanding was clearly seen, as students had “applied games” that needed their performance understanding, which was itself a byproduct of the motivation from the science center. It was a very interesting data analysis, and would be rich to do again in 2017.


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