Building on student curiosity to broaden science participation

Orrin Murray is a principal researcher at American Institutes for Research and external evaluator for our TecRocks project.

We all come into the world primed to wonder.

Curiosity is the internal drive that leads us from exploring our own hands and feet as a newborn to breakthroughs in everything from farming to space exploration. And while we all have some curiosity stimulating our discoveries of the world around us, the fact that, at minimum, we need another person to help us survive and thrive means a good deal of our curiosity is concerned with people.

The intersection of these two intrinsic drivers—curiosity and sociableness—provides a wide and fertile pathway to address issues of equity and inclusion in classrooms. In the video below, I discuss how focusing on a student’s innate curiosity can broaden participation of students who have historically either found themselves at the margins, or excluded, in science-focused classrooms.

As scientists and teachers of science, the fundamental question is: How might we think of curiosity as a lever for supporting equity and inclusion? For teachers, this means adjusting assumptions as to what it means for diverse students to participate, communicate, achieve, and share their experiences. To do this, teachers must have the right frameworks and tools to help all students pursue their own wonderings, ask their own questions, and bring their own experiences to the classroom.

The extent to which a science class supports curiosity—and by extension cultivates inclusive and equitable science learning—starts with setting a classroom environment that encourages and allows for the sparks of curiosity to ignite. To do this, educators first need to examine their own assumptions and values. This self-inventory should look at:

  • How you encourage your students to ask questions,
  • How ideas are embraced, regardless of accuracy, cultural influences, etc.,
  • How comfortable all students in your class are for expressing themselves either verbally or in other ways, and
  • How your own values and assumptions are used for expanding participation or shutting down diverse ideas.

This reflection can be used to explore what you might need to do in order to better include students who have historically been excluded. How can you create a classroom where all students feel they belong?

The video
My goal is to help teachers extend and rekindle the innate curiosity of every student about the world around them. In the video, I focus on geoscience, but the general principles apply to any subject. I believe that everyone is surrounded by countless stimuli, and that at its core, science is about the systematic exploration of those phenomena.

However, we know that many students have been marginalized and don’t see themselves going into scientific careers. They don’t see themselves as scientists. To change that, we need to think about what we can do all along the pipeline of education from kindergarten through high school to amplify student curiosity. For every student.

We need to help all students see how what they are learning is relevant to them either because it impacts their lives or, just as importantly, it sparks their curiosity about the world. We need to feed that curiosity and make those students want to find answers. We need to consider how our ways of doing things to date have not provided an open invitation to all to participate in the doing and the knowing of science. And we need to recognize that the goals of classrooms should expand from just learning the objectives to broadening the objectives to consider relevancy and curiosity.

I invite you to watch the video and ask yourself how you might alter what you do in your classroom. Think about how your students’ lived experiences might not only change but enrich the direction and learning goals.

Imagine a world that invites a broader participation of students in science. What exciting discoveries will they make?