Elimination before imagination: How children’s early understanding of scientists may limit aspirations for broader STEM careers

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This research full paper presents a study that examines emerging understanding of science careers among very young children (aged 5-7) and seeks to identify the factors that influence their understanding. Knowing that early interest in science is a strong predictor for future engineering pathways, and that children begin eliminating careers as incompatible with their future self at a very young age, the results are interpreted in the context of what this means for engineering education. Grounded theory approaches were applied to qualitative data collected through focus groups and used to sort and categorize data and identify themes. The study finds that despite science being a core subject in elementary schooling in the UK, young children’s awareness of scientists and science careers remains low. Four categories to describe the patterns of children’s understanding were identified: undeveloped, introductory, stereotypical, and diversifying. For most children, their perceptions of scientists remained either under-developed or confined to ideas with clear labels, such as stereotypes. Young children’s understanding of engineers may be even more restricted due to engineering not being a taught subject within elementary education in the UK. The factors identified as influencing young children’s understanding of scientists differ somewhat from those presented in studies with slightly older children. Young children did not commonly relate science learning in school with scientists or to a broader spectrum of science-related jobs. Children within the diversifying group highlight the value of personal experiences with science and STEM professionals. By identifying the potential of careers-related learning to shape young children’s understanding of engineering and engineering careers as distinct from that of science and mathematics, these findings have implications for future engineering education practices.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publication2022 IEEE Frontiers in Education Conference (FIE)
Number of pages9
ISBN (Electronic)9781665462440
ISBN (Print)9781665462457
Publication statusPublished - 8 Oct 2022


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