Sunday, April 12, 2009

Falling for Social Science: People in Mind?

In a fascinating book on the role of physical objects and children's developing love of science, Sherry Turkle in Falling for Science, has collected essays from over 25 years of students at MIT in which she asks them to write an essay on the question:
"Was there an object you met during childhood or adolescence that had an influence on your path into science?"
In this book, she shares the essays that students have written over the years that capture the excitement, passion and curiosity that objects often played in these students' growth as young scientists. This is wonderful reading and Turkle uses these reflections to craft new insights into how we foster science education.

The question I was left thinking was how young people's interest in social science emerges. I have often thought that most young people come to social science (family studies, psychology, sociology, anthropology) by the back door. They come into the fields because of an interest in helping people, concern about injustice, puzzled by the difficulties that have witnessed in the lives of their families, communities and so forth. I am not sure many of our entering students would view themselves as entering college in a "science field" or even see themselves as "scientists."

Often it is only after beginning to study that that they discover that there are systematic ways of studying these issues and understanding these problems and fall into love with social scientific work. One of the significant challenges of teaching social science is that students often assume that their own "theories" about how social relationships work and how people grow and change are "right" and have not done very careful thinking about how to test these theories or how to marshal evidence in support or against a particular view of the world. In short, we are often teaching them about how to think critically and scientifically about people and the social world-- in short to think more scientifically about these ideas.

But this is just a hypothesis and I have never explored these questions in the way that Turkle has asked this of her students. So what would the question be to ask young social scientists?

"Was there an event, circumstance, or problem in childhood or adolescence that had an influence on your choice of this major in social science?"

And if it is the case that our students discover that they not only have an interest in making the world better or helping people, it would be interesting to ask them when they began to think of themselves as "scientists." And what pushed these interests and passions forward?

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