Does wearing lab coats in class inspire young scientists? Profs try to find out
By Cristina Rojas
HOPEWELL TOWNSHIP -- In a science class at Bear Tavern Elementary School this past spring, the fourth-graders looked the part, each grabbing a crisp white lab coat before the start of the unit. But in another classroom, their peers just wore their street clothes.
Did their outfits alter how they approached and interacted in science class? That's what two professors at The College of New Jersey and a group of colleagues are trying to figure out.
Education professors Lauren Madden and Marissa Bellino and recent graduate Rachel DiVanno teamed up with researchers from North Carolina State and East Carolina universities to study how elementary school students view themselves as scientists and engineers when wearing lab coats and whether it influences their learning.
"That early pre-adolescent age is so critical for science teaching and learning, especially with the way children start thinking about themselves and their futures," said Madden, an associate professor who teaches courses on elementary science methods.
Madden and her colleagues first interviewed students to get a sense of their scientific reasoning abilities and views on science and scientists.
At Bear Tavern, about 80 students participated in the study: two traditional classes and two classes from the school's STEM Academy, a magnet program that integrates math and science skills with collaborative, hands-on learning. Two of the classes -- one traditional and one STEM -- wore the lab coats for 10 lessons, while the others did not.
The team is still analyzing the data, but Madden says preliminary findings suggest that those who wore the lab coats had improved self-efficacy, or confidence in their abilities, and could better identify careers in science.
Madden said that, anecdotally, the students took ownership of the lab coats and often wrote "Dr." in front of their names.
"Going into it, I thought that maybe these kids were too old for playing dress-up, but they were all really excited," she said.
Madden says the study is built around "enclothed cognition," or the idea that the clothes we wear affect our thought processes.
"Putting on a lab coat is a small act and nothing else about the instruction is different ... but if we're seeing these changes in children's own idea of their abilities changing, it's well worth it," Madden said.
She added that in post-interviews when students were shown photos of children and asked if they could grow up to be scientists, they gave open-minded responses, saying they could grow up to be anything they wanted as long as they worked hard.
Madden says she is looking forward to diving deeper into the data to see if there's differences between gender, race and the traditional and STEM classes. She also hopes to talk with the teachers and advocate for funding to provide lab coats to more students in more schools.
"I'm excited to see what the rest of the story is," Madden said. "I'm also really enjoying the chance to connect the college to the local schools."
Madden's colleagues down South include North Carolina State University professors Gail Jones and Sarah Carrier and East Carolina University professor Tammy Lee.
Cristina Rojas may be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @CristinaRojasTT. Find NJ.com on Facebook.