Teens Don't Think Scientists are Nerds

Posted by: Reena Jana on January 7, 2009

Today’s teens don’t see scientists as “nerdy,” according to a new study from the Lemelson-MIT Program, a non-profit based at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology devoted to recognizing exceptional inventors. In the phone survey of 501 American teens, conducted in mid-November 2008, only 5 per cent described scientists as “nerdy.” Okay, so this post might seem like a satirical news story in The Onion, but the data in the 2009 Lemelson-MIT Invention Index, just released today, suggest that U.S. teens are eager to study science, perhaps against popular belief. (This year’s survey, the twelfth, is the first to focus only on Americans 12-17 years old and how they perceive of invention as a discipline. In the past, the sample was of broad ages).

Twenty-five percent of the teens surveyed said scientists are “successful.” The majority (55 percent) chose “intelligent” as a way to describe men and women in the sciences.

The study also points out that among those polled, a whopping 85 percent expressed interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. And 80 percent surveyed said they feel “their schools have prepared [them] to pursue a career in these fields, should [they] choose.” But while this all seems like a rosy picture of America’s future in global innovation, two-thirds of the kids polled suggested that they need mentors in these fields and don’t have them. They don’t know anyone personally in these fields.

So what’s to be done? The survey suggests that teens feel their schools are good places to learn science and math. But there aren’t enough role models — Steve Jobs, the Google guys aside—in the real world, in their real lives, to help teens truly understand how to shape careers as engineers and inventors. Does the media need to be better about covering who is innovating, beyond the usual suspects? Should scientists and technologists be more vocal, active, and in the public sphere—and in their communities?

Reader Comments

James

January 13, 2009 1:56 AM

I would question the ability of youths (age 12-17) to assess their schools, especially in a field like science or technology where they may lack an implicit understanding of the material.

I am always glad to see the role of "Scientist" gaining respect, but if youths lack a tangible sense of "what scientists do" (as from a mentor) then this may be an idealized and fantastic sense of the "Scientist".
On I09.com there was a blogpost claiming that 2008 was the year that Science Fiction became mainstream (citing box office returns and content of popular tv shows) (http://io9.com/5114754/2008-the-year-science-fiction-became-science-culture).
While science-fiction is a gateway drug to science-fact, not every scifi-fan becomes a scientist.

I like that this study is optimistic about science, but the real test of this study's assertions will be in finding out what percentage of those youths (age 12-17) go into science in the coming years.

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What comes next? The Bloomberg Businessweek Innovation and Design blog chronicles new tools for creativity and collaboration, innovation case studies in both the corporate and social sectors, and the new ideas that have the power to change the way things have always been done.

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