Study Finds Role-Playing May Boost Young Girls’ Interest in STEM Fields

Reut Shachnai

A new study by scholars at Yale University, Duke University, and the University of Chicago, finds that science role-playing may help tighten the gender gap in science, technology, engineering, and math education and careers for women simply by improving their identity as scientists.

The authors devised an experiment to test if assuming the role of a successful scientist would improve girls’ persistence in a “sink or float” science game. The game itself was simple yet challenging: a computer screen projected a slide with an object in the center hovering above a pool of water. Kids then had to predict whether that object — be it an anchor, basketball, balloon, or others — would sink or float. After making their choice, they learned if they made the right choice as they watched the object either plunge or stay afloat.

The researchers recruited 240 four- to seven-year-olds for the experiment. Boys and girls were assigned to three different groups. The baseline group was told they would be scientists for the day and then got to play the game. Children in the “story” group received the same information, but also learned about the successes and struggles of a gender-matched scientist before playing the game. Marie Curie was the scientist used for girls in the group. Children in the “pretend” group did all the same things as the “story” group, with one important twist: these children were told to assume the identity of the scientist they just learned about, and were referred to as such during the game (“What’s your prediction, Dr. Marie?”).

No matter what group they were in, girls got the answers right just as often as boys — nearly 70 percent of the time. Boys didn’t benefit from the stories or make-believe. Girls, on the other hand, benefited immensely from playing pretend. Without being exposed to Marie Curie, girls called it quits after six trials. However, girls pretending to be Dr. Marie persisted twice as long at the sink-or-float game, playing just as much as the boys.

Reut Shachnai, a Ph.D. student in psychology at Yale University and the lead author of the study stated that “rather than merely hearing about role models, children may benefit from actively performing the type of actions they see role models perform. In other words, taking a few steps in the role model’s shoes, instead of merely observing her walk.”

The full study, “Walking In Her Shoes: Pretending To Be a Female Role Model Increases Young Girls’ Persistence in Science,”, was published on the website of the journal Psychological Science. It may be accessed here.

Filed Under: Research/StudySTEM Fields


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