Role-playing games get girls interested in science

Marie Curie

When girls put themselves in Marie Curie’s shoes, their interest in science increases.© blueringmedia/ iStock

Emulate: When girls pretend to be the famous scientist Marie Curie, they are more motivated to pursue a scientific task. In one experiment, girls in the Marie Curie role-playing group stayed with a science game for a similar amount of time as boys. On the other hand, girls who had only heard a story about Marie Curie or received no information about the scientist were significantly more likely to abandon the game. According to this, scientific role-playing games could help to reduce gender-specific differences in interest in STEM subjects.

From the very beginning of elementary school, many children believe that boys are better at science than girls. This assumption influences children's interest, effort, and achievement in subjects such as math, science, technology, and technology (STEM). Gender stereotypes are also reflected in later career choices: in some scientifically-oriented areas, more than three times as many men as women are employed.

Science superheroes

A team led by Reut Shachnai from Yale University in New Haven has now investigated how these stereotypes could be changed. Shachnai came up with the idea while studying psychology in a course on the psychology of imagination. "We were reading a paper on how kids who pretended to be superheroes performed better on self-control tasks — the so-called 'Batman Effect,'" explains her then-professor and co-author Tamar Kushnir. "Reut wondered if this would also work to encourage girls to stay in science."

To test this hypothesis, the researchers used the science game "Sink or Swim": The children see various objects floating above a surface of water on a screen and are asked to predict whether these objects - such as an anchor, a basketball or a balloon - will sink or swim . After making their choice, they see the item fall into the water and either sink or stay on the surface. How persistently would the boys and girls play this game? And what influence would possible role models have?

stories of role models

To find out, the researchers recruited 240 American children between the ages of four and seven and divided them into three groups. Before the game, they told the children in the control group that they would now be scientists for the day and could now play a corresponding game. The children in the story group received the same information, but before the game they also heard about the life and achievements of a scientific role model – Isaac Newton for the boys and Marie Curie for the girls. A short quiz afterwards made sure they had paid attention to the story.

The children from the role-playing group also heard the corresponding story, but were then supposed to act out that they themselves were the corresponding personality. During the sink or swim game, they were addressed accordingly: "What's your prediction, Dr. Marie?” After each round of the game, the children were asked if they wanted to continue playing or do something else. At the end, they were also asked to rate how good they felt in the game and as a scientist.

Endurance as Marie Curie

Although the girls in all groups were correct in their predictions just as often as the boys - about 70 percent of the time - the girls in the control and story groups lost interest in the game after an average of six rounds. The girls from the role-playing group, on the other hand, played an average of twelve rounds. For the boys, it made no difference which group they were assigned to. They also played an average of twelve rounds of the game, regardless of prior exposure. "The boys were already at the upper limit, so to speak, regardless of our intervention," says Kushnir. "The girls, on the other hand, benefited immensely from imaginative play."

While listening to the story without role-playing did not affect their stamina in the sink or swim game, it did at least make the girls more positive about their self-assessment as scientists in the final rating. According to the researchers, the role-playing method has the potential to counteract negative role models. “Rather than just hearing from role models, children can benefit from actively engaging in the types of actions that they see role models doing. In other words, take a few steps in the role model's footsteps, rather than just watching their path," Shachnai said.

Source: Reut Shachnai (Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut, USA) et al., Psychological Science, doi: 10.1177/09567976221119393

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