Gender Differences in Science-Related Attitudes and Interests among Middle School and High School Students

By Desy, Elizabeth A.; Peterson, Scott A. et al. | Science Educator, Fall 2011 | Go to article overview

Gender Differences in Science-Related Attitudes and Interests among Middle School and High School Students


Desy, Elizabeth A., Peterson, Scott A., Brockman, Vicky, Science Educator


Abstract

A survey of 6th-12th grade students was conducted to measure their science-related attitudes and interests. Significant gender differences were found among these students. Females reported more anxiety about science as well as less motivation in and enjoyment of science than males. In spite of their unfavorable attitudes toward science, a large percentage of females expected to pursue a college major and subsequent career in the health sciences. We discuss reasons for the disconnect between female students' attitudes and their choice of college major and career.

Keywords: science attitudes, gender differences, middle school, high school

Introduction

Leaders in STEM education, business, and industry have expressed concern that interest in science and sciencerelated careers among U.S. students is failing to keep pace with the expected demand for a scientifically-literate workforce (National Academy of Sciences, 2007). Several explanations have been suggested for this lack of interest in science, among them the development of negative attitudes toward science that originate during the elementary school years (Haladyna & Shaughnessy, 1982) and persist through the secondary and postsecondary years (Desy, Peterson, & Brockman, 2009; George, 2006; Hofstein & Welch, 1984; Simpson & Oliver, 1985).

Although a number of variables may affect students' attitudes toward science, the two most influential appear to be gender and the quality of science instruction students experience early in their academic lives (Ebenezer & Zoller, 1993; Osborne, Simon, & Collins, 2003; Schibeci & Riley, 1986). Past studies (American Association of University Women [AAUW], 1991; George, 2006; Haladyna & Shaughnessy, 1982; Weinburgh, 1995) have shown that girls tend to exhibit more negative attitudes towards science classes and a career in science than do boys. In addition, girls' interest in science steadily declines from middle school to the high school years (AAUW, 1991; Hofstein & Welch, 1984). The lack of interest in science among female high school students does not appear to be explained by low ability or achievement (Miller, Blessing, & Schwartz, 2006; Weinburgh, 1995). In fact, girls are earning high school math and science credits at the same rate as boys and are earning slightly higher grades in these classes (U.S. Department of Education, 2007).

Several researchers (Gogolin & Swartz, 1992; Weinburgh, 1995) have suggested that positive attitudes are essential precursors for students to develop an interest in science. Farenga and Joyce (1998) found that positive feelings and perceptions of science among elementary-aged girls in particular led to their greater interest in science classes. Consequently, positive attitudes in science have been heavily promoted by science educators for the past two decades in a concerted effort to encourage more students to take STEM courses and consider careers in STEM fields (National Science Foundation, 2003).

The purpose of this study was to measure attitudes and interests in science among middle school and high school students from rural, southwest Minnesota. Our primary goals were to: 1) compare the science-related attitudes of middle school and high school students; 2) determine whether gender differences in science-related attitudes exist for these students and what factors may be responsible for any observed differences; and 3) examine the types of college majors and careers that current 6th- 12th grade rural students are considering.

Method

Participants.

The participants in this study consisted of 1299 students in middle school (grades 6-8) and high school (grades 9-12) taking science classes at six different school districts in southwest Minnesota during the spring semester of 2007. The middle school sample consisted of 316 males, 307 females, and 3 students who did not report their genders. …

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