Interest | Adam Maltese
"We define interest as somebody’s desire to reengage with a topic; to want to do more of it, to learn more about something, to do more of an activity."
2018 Interview Highlights:
How do you define “interest”?
I use a pretty basic definition, which is this: interest is somebody’s desire to reengage with a topic, to want to do more of it, to learn more about something, or to do more of an activity. There are definitely other more complex definitions, understandings, and models of it, but that’s the way we think of it. We’re looking at positive attitudes toward science or STEM that make somebody want to seek out the possibility of reengaging, if given the chance.
How do you measure or assess interest?
We typically default to survey methods. Often we ask things like, “If given the choice, would you participate in something like this?” Sometimes, to assess STEM career interest, we might ask, “What job or what career do you think you want when you get older?” So we try to come at it a couple of different ways. We build off of things that we’ve generally created ourselves, and what that means from my research is that we do a continuous cycle of qualitative observations, interviews, informal discussions with people, and then we use those discussions to inform further survey developments and then iterate on the survey from there. One of the current surveys that we’re working on with adults has been in existence now for probably close to 10 years, but we’ve modified it each time we’ve used it as a way to look at different aspects of interest.
How do you think science interest is connected with identity, motivation, or attitudes? How do you distinguish science interest from these other concepts, if at all?
I think there’s a decent amount of overlap. Interest and motivation and engagement and identity are constructs that are consistently ebbing and flowing, moving and changing. So, it’s not just a single static condition where one thing always influences another. There’s this sort of consistent interplay.
One of the things that we’ve looked at students’ choices of majors at a university. We used to think that some of the data indicated that people choose majors primarily because of what they’re interested in. It makes total sense. It seems logical. And there are data to indicate that that’s true across fields. If we separate it out into STEM people and non-STEM people, both groups indicate that interest was the main reason why they picked their major. Based on some other research, we thought that people might change majors because they start losing interest in a given area. But based on some interviews and some other surveys that we collected, it seems more like what happens is there’s a relative shift in interest. For example, some students might think they want to do biology, and their first year they’re taking some biology classes and they’re taking some foreign language classes. And they like the biology, but they’re sort of working their way through it and maybe it’s not increasing their interest, but they have a really great experience in a foreign language class or a history class. So, that triggers them to think, “well, maybe I would enjoy it more if I went into these other fields.” And it seems that that’s why some students make these shifts.
People tend to say not that they’re interested in science, but that they’re interested in biology, chemistry, or physics. Instead of foreign language, they’re into Spanish or German. What do you think about being specific in order to capture interest?
I taught earth science and I taught physical science, which involved chemistry and physics. I like biology as well, but I just don’t have the depth of knowledge in that area. But I generally really like science across all of those aspects and really like STEM broadly. For people whose interests are more domain specific, my thinking is that that’s more the fault of the education they’ve received than it is a result of a specific interest that they have. They just haven’t been turned on and shown how those other fields can be fascinating and interesting.