Statement | More diversity? Let kids do science

Children are little scientists by nature: they are born with innate curiosity, form hypotheses about how the world works, collect information and thus come to new insights. Yet many children think that science is not for them. This particularly applies to girls, children with a non-Western migration background and children without highly educated parents.

Why? Because these children do not recognize themselves in the stereotypical image of scientists. When children are asked to draw a scientist, they often draw a white man in glasses and a lab coat, surrounded by impressive equipment: test tubes, Bunsen burners and machines with dials. It is high time to fight this stereotype.

Science has a diversity problem. Therefore, in 2020 the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science launched the national action plan for more diversity and inclusion in higher education and research. Earlier this month, Minister Robbert Dijkgraaf (D66) updated Parliament on this action plan.

Diversity

What is forgotten in his action plan is that lack of diversity doesn’t just start in higher education and research – it already starts in primary school or even before. To increase diversity in science, we must give our youngest generation an inclusive view of science and scientists. An image that everyone can identify with, regardless of gender, migration background or socio-economic background.

How can we create such a spacious picture? By giving all children an active role in establishing and carrying out scientific research. This can be done at school, where children do science experiments with their classmates, such as the experiments onproefjes.nl. Or at science museums like NEMO, where children can do experiments from all kinds of scientific disciplines.

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But it can also be done in scientific research at knowledge institutions, where scientists create and research together with children. Therefore, Lil’Scientist within De Jonge Akademie has been launched, a citizen scienceprogram that originates from a collaboration with the IMC Weekend School and is now funded from the National Science Agenda. We let kids—especially kids growing up in underprivileged situations—collaborate with different scientists from across the country to do real scientific research.

Unconventional ideas

Such activities are not only educational for the children, but also for the researchers. Children often come up with unexpected, unconventional and creative ideas that can lead to new discoveries. Researchers, who are sometimes stuck in traditional ways of thinking, can gain new insights in this way. I have never seen it that way, I hear colleagues say.

But we’re not there yet. Simply doing science with children does not automatically make children see themselves as budding scientists. Many children see science as an elitist, complicated and, above all, lonely activity. That is why it is important to anchor science with children in three core messages.

The first message is that science is about experimentation: trying, failing and trying again. When adults talk to children about science, they often talk about leading scientists like Einstein, Darwin and Newton, who are then labeled as geniuses, as if their scientific insights just happened. This is not only wrong, but also discouraging: children who do not consider themselves geniuses or find science difficult drop out. By correctly describing science as an activity – not as an identity – children develop more interest in science.

growth mindset

In addition, it is essential that children experience that they can get better and better at doing science. You don’t have to master scientific thinking right away. If you don’t understand something, it doesn’t mean you’re stupid; it means you can improve yourself. Such a growth mindset—the recognition that your skills are not fixed but can grow—helps children persevere and learn.

A final message is that science is about collaboration. It is not a solitary but a collective enterprise. Researchers help each other, learn from each other and have a common goal: to understand the world better so that they can tackle societal problems – such as inequality, Covid-19 and climate change. Children who grow up in disadvantaged situations excel at working together.

My hope is: If we actively involve all children in scientific research, their curiosity, curiosity and confidence will grow and they will learn that anyone can be a scientist. This is not only necessary to increase diversity in higher education and research, but also essential to the development of children into critical global citizens. After all, a scientific way of thinking is not reserved for scientists at a knowledge institution; it’s a skill anyone can master. Because science is by and for everyone.

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