Teens Don't Think Scientists are Nerds

Today's teens don't see scientists as

Today’s teens don’t see scientists as “nerdy,” according to a new study from the Lemelson-MIT Program, a non-profit based at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology devoted to recognizing exceptional inventors. In the phone survey of 501 American teens, conducted in mid-November 2008, only 5 per cent described scientists as “nerdy.” Okay, so this post might seem like a satirical news story in The Onion, but the data in the 2009 Lemelson-MIT Invention Index, just released today, suggest that U.S. teens are eager to study science, perhaps against popular belief. (This year’s survey, the twelfth, is the first to focus only on Americans 12-17 years old and how they perceive of invention as a discipline. In the past, the sample was of broad ages).

Twenty-five percent of the teens surveyed said scientists are “successful.” The majority (55 percent) chose “intelligent” as a way to describe men and women in the sciences.

The study also points out that among those polled, a whopping 85 percent expressed interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. And 80 percent surveyed said they feel “their schools have prepared [them] to pursue a career in these fields, should [they] choose.” But while this all seems like a rosy picture of America’s future in global innovation, two-thirds of the kids polled suggested that they need mentors in these fields and don’t have them. They don’t know anyone personally in these fields.

So what’s to be done? The survey suggests that teens feel their schools are good places to learn science and math. But there aren’t enough role models — Steve Jobs, the Google guys aside—in the real world, in their real lives, to help teens truly understand how to shape careers as engineers and inventors. Does the media need to be better about covering who is innovating, beyond the usual suspects? Should scientists and technologists be more vocal, active, and in the public sphere—and in their communities?

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