Research Summary

The role of emotional factors in building public scientific literacy and engagement with science

Positive Emotions Linked with Scientific Literacy

International Journal of Science Education

Previous research has shown that while scientific knowledge tends to have an ephemeral quality, emotional factors such as feelings of interest, enjoyment, and curiosity about science tend to be enduring. In this paper, the researchers examined whether these positive emotions are correlated with greater levels of scientific literacy in 15-year-old students. In addition, they examined a potential link between these emotional factors and subsequent public engagement with science as adults.

This study was conducted using two distinct groups of participants. One group included 8,815 students aged 15 years from a variety of schools in international cities, towns, and villages. This data was taken from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) 2006, conducted by the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD). The 4,621 males and 4,194 females were given paper-and-pencil surveys, each with 108 total questions. Several questions addressed attitude and emotion by asking the students to rate their interest levels and enjoyment in learning science on a four-point scale. The test also included science-related stories that were meant to assess their scientific literacy and their future interest in learning about science. For example, after reading a story about acid rain, the students were asked to identify scientific issues, explain scientific concepts, and use scientific evidence to draw conclusions based on content presented in the story, all to measure scientific literacy. In addition, students were asked how much interest they had in learning about technologies that minimize the emission of gases that cause acid rain, as a measure of future interest in science.

The other group of participants was made up of 2,024 adults in Taiwan, using data drawn from a separate 2009 study. These participants were surveyed regarding their interest in learning about science topics, engagement in viewing science-related television content, and engagement in reading articles in magazines such as National Geographic and Scientific American.

First, the researchers examined whether the performance of the 15-year-old students on the scientific literacy test correlated with their current levels of interest in science. The authors found that higher levels of interest, enjoyment, and engagement correlated with higher scientific literacy scores. Second, they examined whether these emotional factors also affected their reported level of interest in learning about science in the future. Again, the results showed that there was a high correlation between their current interest, enjoyment, and engagement and their interest in future learning of science.

Next, the authors compared the interest levels in science of the 15-year-old students with the adult group. They found that the percentage of 15-year-olds with medium-to-high interest in chemistry was very close to the percentage of adults with an interest in scientific discoveries (48.1 percent versus 49.8 percent). Similarly, 68.4 percent of students rated a medium or high interest in human biology, which corresponded closely to the 69.4 percent of adults with an interest in medical discoveries.

Finally, the authors looked at differences between the students and adults in ways that they engage with science through TV science programs and science articles from newspapers. They found that fewer students reported watching TV science programs compared to adults; only 18.6 percent of students reported watching science on TV “regularly or very often” compared to 60.7 percent of the adults surveyed. The differences between the two groups with regard to reading science articles were less noteworthy.

Students’ emotional associations with science may be used as indicators of their academic performance in science, as well as their future interest and participation in the fields of science. The authors argued that these emotional perceptions of scientific topics should not be ignored when designing curriculum. Additionally, the authors suggested that future research studies focus on science activities outside of the school context—whether visiting science museums or participating in community projects that connect science to real life—to determine their impact on students’ interest, engagement, and enjoyment.

The Bottom Line

Promoting positive emotional associations with science—such as enjoyment, engagement, and interest—may be an effective tool for increasing students’ academic performance in science, as well as a means of promoting continued interest in science throughout life.