April 20, 2017
An East Carolina University researcher is looking into how elementary school students view themselves as scientists and engineers when wearing lab coats.
Dr. Tammy Lee, assistant professor of science education in the Department of Mathematics, Science and Instructional Technology Education in the ECU College of Education, has teamed up with colleagues at N.C. State University and The College of New Jersey for the study.
This spring, 300 fifth-graders and five teachers in four schools in Pitt County have participated.
"We know that there is some interesting work that suggests that what you wear influences how you think about yourself and your work," said Dr. Gail Jones, professor of science education at NCSU. "With support from the Biogen Foundation, we are investigating how wearing lab coats alters students' confidence, problem solving and career goals. Children often love to dress up and take on new roles. In this study, we build on their motivations to help develop the idea that they can do science and could potentially be a future scientist."
The foundation for the biotechnology company Biogen contributed $6,150 for the purchase of the lab coats.
The students have worn the crisp white coats while in regular science class. "We didn't want the students to just put the lab coat on when doing an experiment in class," Lee said. "We want them to know that science is done a lot of different ways, not just in the lab."
Lee also noted that not all scientists wear lab coats. Field biologists, for instance, may dress differently than someone working in a laboratory.
Teachers have been documenting lessons taught including discussion and clinical lab work while students are wearing the coats. Before the study began, students were interviewed to find out what they thought of science and scientists, and who they thought were scientists. A post-study survey will be taken before the end of the school year.
In March, Pactolus School teacher Lauren Brewington '16 began a unit on ecosystems while her students wore their lab coats. She said wearing the coats have helped her students think about their future.
"It's helped to broaden their interest about careers in science and to understand that there's more out there than what they've seen so far," Brewington said.
Pactolus fifth-grader Shamiracle Spellmon said she likes to button up her lab coat while wearing it. "It makes me feel like a scientist," she said.
"They are professional when we're talking about science," Brewington said. "They're trying to fulfill the role, and they're excited about science."
Eastern, Sam D. Bundy and W.H. Robinson are the other Pitt County elementary schools participating in the study.
Dr. Sarah Carrier, associate professor of education at NCSU, and Dr. Lauren O'Neill Madden, associate professor of elementary science education at TCNJ, are the other researchers on the study.
"This collaborative study emerges from a long standing interest that our universities have had to find new ways to engage the next generation in science and engineering," Jones said.
The data will be analyzed beginning this summer.