The Image of STEM as Solitary & Isolating

I recently came upon the research of Dr. Allison Master who is a scientist at the University of Washington's Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences. She’s currently investigating how stereotypes may affect students' interest in STEM fields. Dr. Master shared some context and a bit about her research specifically. Here are some highlights.

Did you know that positive attitudes about math and science drops from 71% to 48% between 4th and 8th grades? And that 8th grade math learners work individually 80% of the time?  Dr. Master’s STEM education research shows that children consistently show greater motivation for group work, rate group tasks as more fun, and say they are better at it. As a fellow National Science Foundation grantee with a similar mission, I was particularly struck by Dr. Master’s observations that followed.

“Children need to be engaged in STEM before they start to lose interest. The image of STEM as solitary and isolating is strong in our culture. If we make STEM social, we can help inspire more students to discover their interest in STEM.”

The image of STEM as solitary and isolating is a message we’ve heard repeatedly from our students as a result of exposing them to potential STEM careers – and isolation can take many different forms. A gregarious college sophomore studying information science shared that he didn’t want to be a coder and sit by himself all day staring a screen. A 9th grader expressed that she didn’t want to be a research scientist and be stuck in a lab all day. A 6th grader excited about high tech farming and horticulture science shared with her class that she thought farmers all lived in the middle of nowhere.

I certainly can see how adding a social element into classroom practice can improve engagement and motivation. And certainly not all STEM careers are solitary or isolating – take it from an extrovert who has thrived in technology for a few decades. But it’s also important to understand the social requirements and overall characteristics of a given career and how that fits with your student’s values and interests since some careers do require more autonomous, independent work.    

What do you think about these insights on STEM education engagement and motivation? What’s the potential impact on your teaching and parenting practices? 



Melissa RisteffComment