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How Stories Told Of Brilliant Scientists Affect Kids' Interest In The Field


So if I asked you to name a few famous scientists, maybe you would say Albert Einstein, Marie Curie, maybe Neil deGrasse Tyson. We know those people because of their famous achievements, their brilliance. And that is all true. But there is new social science research suggesting that if we want to get young people interested in science, we need our role models to be more than just geniuses. And let's talk about this with a genius colleague of mine, Shankar Vedantam, NPR social science correspondent. Hey, Shankar.


GREENE: All right. So what research do you bring us today?

VEDANTAM: Well, this stems from an experience that Columbia University educational psychologist Xiadong Lin-Siegler had. Growing up in China, David, she told me that she learned about scientists but mostly about how hard people work to make discoveries. When she came to the United States, she found that people tend to think of scientists as being naturally brilliant.

And Lin-Siegler wondered if this difference might explain why lots of young people in the United States feel that science and math are not for them. So she quizzed lots of students. She asked them to list the qualities of scientists and whether they have those same qualities. Here she is.

XIAODONG LIN-SIEGLER: They said famous, genius, research. So almost everyone mentioned genius. So as a result of that, 80-90 percent of students we interviewed in the school we work with all told us no, science is not my thing. Math is not my thing.

GREENE: So she's saying it's actually counterproductive to say scientists are geniuses because kids are going to say, like, oh, I could never do that.

VEDANTAM: Precisely. If you feel you're not naturally brilliant, it's logical to conclude that science and math are not for you.

GREENE: Did she actually test this?

VEDANTAM: She did. She and her colleagues - Janet Aun (ph), Jiando Chen (ph), Annie Fong (ph), and Myra Luna-Lucero (ph) - gave hundreds of students accounts of scientists. Some kids were told very conventional genius stories - you know, Albert Einstein, brilliant physicist, won the Nobel Prize. He's such a genius. Others were told how hard Einstein had to struggle. At one point, apparently Einstein was having such trouble working out the math in his theories that he turned to his friend Max Planck and he said, this is driving me crazy. Can you please help me with the math?

GREENE: Oh, sending a message that Einstein, as great as he was, actually needed help from someone who's even smarter.

VEDANTAM: Exactly. So the genius needed help from someone else. Now, a third group of students was told how scientists had to struggle not just with the science but with various personal obstacles. So Marie Curie, whom you mentioned, the famous physicist, was excluded from colleges because she was a woman. Michael Faraday was not part of the old boys' club in England. These people were outsiders. They had to fight just to get heard.

Lin-Siegler and her colleagues then measured how well students who read the struggle stories did in science tests compared to students who read the achievement stories about how the scientists were just brilliant people. She also measured how engaged the students felt about science and how much persistence they demonstrated when they faced obstacles.

LIN-SIEGLER: The most interesting discovery is people who read struggle stories improved their science grades significantly than people who read achievement story. Number two - people who are in achievement group, their score actually was significantly lower comparing to when they came in. So achievement story really hurts.

GREENE: So what do you do with something like this? I mean, you don't want to teach Einstein and say here's this OK guy who made all these discoveries. I mean, you want to write it in a way that sort of speaks to the brilliance, don't you?

VEDANTAM: I think you want to speak to the brilliance, but you also need to speak to the struggle. I think, you know, role models, at some level, David, need to be like us. They need to face struggles and obstacles and doubts. When we turn heroes into superheroes, you know, superficially it can seem inspiring. But it can actually be discouraging because we feel what they achieved is just out of my reach.

GREENE: That is Shankar Vedantam, who is a brilliant, OK guy.

VEDANTAM: (Laughter).

GREENE: And he is NPR's social science correspondent. Thanks, Shankar.

VEDANTAM: Thanks, David.

GREENE: He also hosts a new podcast that explores the unseen patterns in human behavior. It's called Hidden Brain. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Shankar Vedantam is the host and creator of Hidden Brain. The Hidden Brain podcast receives more than three million downloads per week. The Hidden Brain radio show is distributed by NPR and featured on nearly 400 public radio stations around the United States.