Research Summary

Igniting and Sustaining Interest Among Students Who Have Grown Cold Toward Science

Igniting a Lasting Interest in Science

Science Education

Several studies have documented declining student interest in science and science-related careers in the United States. An active interest is what motivates people to continue learning and engaging with issues involving science throughout life. There is concern, therefore, that declining student interest in science will lead, overall, to a less scientifically literate and engaged population. This study sought to identify factors that ignite student interest in science, not just during the particular activity, but also over the longer term. The researchers reviewed empirical studies as well as theories on sparking student interest in science.

Based on the authors’ literature review, they first provide a comprehensive overview of the nature of interest. Rather than trying to define interest, they present three characteristics of interest that reflect commonly recognized views of scholars. These three characteristics of interest are: (1) interest biases individuals toward feeling satisfied and enjoying certain activities as they occur, and it also encourages individuals to reflect more fondly on memories of those activities; (2) interest disposes people toward seeking out additional experiences with the object or activity of interest; and (3) interests are changeable, and how quickly they change depends on the degree of internalization, which occurs when something is deemed as meaningfully relevant to a person’s life. The more internalized an interest, the deeper the roots, and the less likely a person is to radically change his or her interest in the topic.

The next topic the authors review in depth is the difference between situational and personal interest. Situational (or direct) interest is the attention and enthusiasm for a topic or activity in the moment it is encountered. Individual (or indirect) interest is characterized by a disposition or personal preference for a subject. To illustrate this difference, the authors provide an example of situational interest as being riveted by a shark display at the aquarium and individual interest as liking anything to do with sharks or identifying one’s favorite subject as marine biology. Situational interest that is reinforced through further engaging in related activities and other forms of positive feedback has the potential, over time, to develop into an individual interest.

The specific issue the researchers wanted to address in this study was how to bring about a positive change in interest in students’ negative attitudes toward learning science. In other words, the researchers asked, “How can a teacher ignite situational interest in a student who is not interested in science?” And then, “How can this situational interest in science be reinforced to become a personal interest?” To answer these questions, the authors reviewed empirical studies published in science education journals between 2003 and 2013 related to the terms situational interest and individual interest.

This review revealed three stimuli that were consistently noted for positively effecting change in students’ negative interest in learning science, which the authors coined as follows: (1) heat of novelty, (2) fuel of involvement, and (3) oxygen of meaningfulness. These three stimuli, arranged in a triangular diagram where each stimulus comprises one side, is what creates the Interest Combustion Triangle (ICT).

The heat of novelty refers to activities that trigger students’ situational interest. Based on their review, the authors outline several types of experiences that increase the heat of novelty. These experiences: (1) are unexpected, suspenseful, or surprising; (2) are different from those normally encountered in class; (3) produce feelings of success when doing science; (4) promote practical work; (5) provide a variety of choices and give students autonomy; and (6) teach students by combining teaching with play. Studies have also shown that science teachers who present a sincere and nonjudgmental concern, and listen to their students’ ideas or questions about science, also tend to ignite science learning. All of these aforementioned techniques elicit positive emotions. Another way to spark novelty in learning is by provoking cognitive conflict in the student. In other words, this novelty can be sparked by identifying a misconception held by a student, acknowledging it, and presenting the correct scientific view—or better yet, by helping the student discover the correct understanding for him or herself.

The fuel of involvement refers to engaging students in activities so that they feel autonomous and/or socially related to others. Hands-on and personal activities are one way to promote autonomy in learning and to allow students the chance to internalize the meaning of the subject matter. This autonomy in learning also makes it more likely the student will feel personally connected to the material and start to develop an individual interest in the subject. Social and group activities can also be a way of fueling involvement; these activities can also connect the subject matter with something personally relevant to most students: their friends. Overall, the fuel of involvement is about finding ways to maintain student interest so that the initial heat of novelty does not dissipate.

Finally, a robust fire of interest requires the oxygen of meaningfulness. This means helping students discover ways that the material is personally relevant to their lives and/or connected to what they already know about science. If students feel the material is relevant, they are more likely to want to accommodate that material in their understanding of the world. Finally, students are also more likely to then develop a sense of ownership and internalization of the subject matter.

The authors proposed a teaching strategy for implementing the ICT, which they call K-W-L2-R, based on an established teaching method called K-W-L (Ogle, 1986). The strategy includes a series of five questions on which teachers and students can reflect together. The first two questions are asked before the activity: (1) “What do we Know?” and (2) “What do we Want to find out?” After the activity, the next three questions are asked: (3) “What did we Learn?” (4) “What do we still need to Learn?” and (5) How Relevant is this learning to my life?” This teaching strategy covers all of the aspects of ICT. It can help students feel like teachers listen to and understand them; it can also help students and teachers discover cognitive conflicts, which fuels a sense of novelty and initial interest. K-W-L2-R allows for involvement and further inquiry, and it can also help students discover how the material is meaningful to their lives.

The Bottom Line

Igniting a sustained personal interest in science or environmental issues is critical for fostering lifelong learning and engagement. The Interest Combustion Triangle (ICT) provides a framework for lighting and sustaining the fire of interest. The three sides of the ICT are: (1) heat of novelty, (2) fuel of involvement, and (3) oxygen of meaningfulness. The first step is sparking students’ initial interest with novel and exciting experiences. The second step is to give students the opportunity to be involved through hands-on learning or group activities. And finally, the third step is to find ways to make the material meaningful and personally relevant to students’ lives. This ICT framework can be applied to teaching any subject material.