Hobbies: idle pastimes or keys to science engagement and education?

Published on PLOS Sci-Ed

Collecting and polishing rocks and minerals, hunting for shells and fossils, gardening, birding, keeping freshwater and marine aquariums—this was how I spent my childhood: hopping from one hobby to the next, all centered around the natural (or semi-natural) world. My interest in science and nature started before I can remember—it just always seemed to be there. I’m sure my parents had something to do with it, my dad being an aerospace engineer, and my mom a student of botany and horticulture and a sort of unofficial lifelong naturalist. But while they supported my hobbies (often with a great deal of time, effort, and patience), these activities were all primarily driven by my own interests and inclinations. They weren’t things I was pushed to do. Over the years I cycled through paleontologist, veterinarian, science teacher, ecologist and marine biologist as my career goal of choice, but it was always a given in my mind that I would go to college, study biology, and end up in some sort of science-related career. The career I was set on pursuing in any given year usually matched whichever hobby I was currently most engaged with.

Jean’s rock and mineral collection

A few representatives from my childhood rock and mineral collection. Photo by Jean Flanagan.

My own story is just one anecdote, and unstructured science activities that occur in individual homes are difficult for education researchers to study. However a few retrospective studies have pointed to the importance of hobbies for interest and persistence in science. In 1993 Gilbert Nazier reported on the results from an open-response survey of 96 science and engineering professors (in the fields of biology, chemistry, physics, geology, and civil, mechanical, and electrical engineering). The survey simply asked: “What factors in your life led you to choose science/technology as the career you would enter? (Give a brief description and indicate the approximate time of this factor.)” Responses were categorized into nine major categories: science/math hobbies, family influence, natural curiosity, reading, field trips, competitions, career awareness, and science/math ability. The top category was science/math hobbies, with a quarter of the professors including this factor in their response. Furthermore, 70% of those who included hobbies as an influence reported partaking in them prior to age 12. More recently, Adam Maltese and Robert Tai published results from interviews with 116 scientists and science graduate students (in physics and chemistry) about their first engagement with science. The authors found that 45% of the interviewees described their interest as intrinsic or self-directed, (as opposed to stemming from school or family influence) with many mentioning tinkering and hobbies, and 65% of the interviewees reported that their interest in science began before middle school.

Of course other factors strongly influence persistence in science education and careers, including gender and socioeconomic status. And interest alone is not understanding—it isn’t enough to succeed in science classes or careers. However, it could act as a powerful motivator that could help students push past obstacles in education that would turn others away. While I certainly picked up some science facts, concepts, and practices through my hobbies, they couldn’t have taken the place of my school science classes. However, I did bring added enthusiasm for science to the classroom. I was proud to contribute outside knowledge to the class, and eager to apply what I learned in class to my hobbies. My passion, fueled by hobbies, helped me make the most of school science classes when other students may have disengaged due to sub-optimal curriculum, teaching, or assessments.

The possibility that hobbies can influence future involvement in science raises the issue of privilege. Individual, home-based hobbies require money, time, and parental engagement. I was fortunate to have a family that was able and eager to fund and support my science pastimes—many other bright young students are not so lucky. These students must rely on what schools and science centers can provide, and depending on their location, sometimes only school. While schools and science centers can provide similar types of engagement for students, by these activities are usually much more structured and less self-directed than personal hobbies. They also tend to have limited time frames, whereas personal hobbies can be pursued at will across many years.

In “Look, Don’t Touch,” an essay published last year in Orion Magazine, environmental educator David Sobel bemoaned the state of informal environmental education “programs.” For young elementary-age children, he argued, most programs aren’t actually informal enough—they typically come with long lists of rules. Supporting his case, he summarized a review of surveys of adults in environmental careers:

…environmentalists talk about free play and exploration in nature, and family members who focused their attention on plants or animal behavior. They don’t talk much about formal education and informal nature education. Only in late childhood and adolescence do summer camp, teachers, and environmental clubs start to show up as being contributors to the individual’s environmental values and behaviors. It seems that allowing children to be “untutored savages” early on can lead to environmental knowledge in due time.

Schools or school-museum partnerships could facilitate more loosely structured hobby time in after-school or other non-class-time programs. Unlike class time, or even structured field trips, there wouldn’t have to be instruction, or any explicit focus on learning—the overarching goal would be nothing more than enjoyment. Learning would occur naturally as hobby-related questions arise, or in the classroom when connections to hobbies become apparent. But perhaps more importantly, students without the resources to pursue hobbies at home would have the chance to gain the benefits of associating science with fun, self-selecting science activities they most identify with, and accumulating some practical expertise that could spawn feelings of competence in science.