Tooled Up Education

Researcher of the Month

STEM in preschool settings: do teachers’ scientific questions differ by child gender?

In the US, as in numerous countries including the UK, female and non-White students are underrepresented in science, technology, engineering, and maths (STEM) fields. A significant body of research demonstrates significant gender disparities in STEM achievement, participation and attitudes from early childhood, and that these continue to widen as children get older. Children are strongly influenced by their early environments and conversations with adults. Whilst gendered messages around STEM are now rarely explicit – children are unlikely to be told that girls can’t be scientists – they may receive more subtle messages about representation and belonging. These differences may contribute to children’s beliefs about their own STEM ability, their performance in STEM activities, and their decision to pursue a career in STEM.

US researcher, Dr Sona Kumar, and her colleagues sought to explore whether there are subtle differences in the messages that preschool educators send girls and boys about STEM. Previous, older research with caregivers found that parents tended to provide more scientific explanations to boys than to girls. Studies have also found that, within classroom settings, boys often receive more attention from teachers on science-related subjects than girls. Dr Kumar predicted that teachers would direct more scientific questions to boys than girls and tested this by observing a preschool setting.


The chosen preschool already had microphones and cameras embedded in the ceiling (for use during teacher training), so Dr Kumar and her team were able to record naturalistic conversations as the children (aged two to five years old) engaged in scientific activities and thinking. They filmed the ‘science’ and ‘block’ areas of the classroom, recording footage for 60 minutes, twice a week during the spring and autumn of 2018. Following children’s particular interests, the setting incorporated science in various areas of the classroom, but it also had a specific science table which focused on biological science, featuring different creatures and phenomena for children to observe and it was this area that the researchers focused on. At one point, the table featured hermit crabs which children could look at and learn about. During autumn, a pumpkin was left on the table so that children could observe and talk about the process of decomposition. They had access to magnifying glasses and could record what they saw.

They examined the videos for teacher-initiated information-seeking questions, finding 277 questions for inclusion in the study, which they divided into two types. The first was fact-based questions, such as, ‘Where is the hermit crab?’ or, ‘Which block will you start with?’. The second type of question was labelled as ‘causal’. These were more often ‘how’ or ‘why’ questions, such as, ‘How do you take care of your fish?’ or, ‘Why do you need lights?’ These often demanded a more complex response.

At face value, the data showed that teachers in this preschool asked more fact-based than causal questions and that they directed significantly more scientific questions to boys than to girls; stark findings which surprised Dr Kumar. On further investigation, the researchers found that this difference might be explained by the fact that boys visited the science area of the classroom more than girls and stayed there for longer, providing more opportunities for teachers to engage boys in scientific conversations than girls. When the researchers took into account the amount of time each child spent in the science or block areas, and looked at the rate of questions asked to boys and girls, the frequency of questions was actually similar. 

Although teachers asked boys and girls questions at similar rates in this classroom, as girls spent less time in the science or block areas, it seems possible that girls may still receive different messages than boys about how to approach science as early as the preschool years. The authors note that it may be important to consider ways to encourage young girls to participate in science activities in the classroom.


“Young children are sensitive to the messages that adults send about who should engage and participate in science. Such messages and opportunities to respond to teachers’ scientific questions may impact children’s engagement in science during the preschool years and contribute to their later interest and motivation in STEM.”

Foster a sense of belonging. Before stereotypes are solidified, try to let young children know that they can belong in the STEM sphere. Reform any systems or practices that perpetuate notions that science is ‘clever’ or masculine.

Talk about science as a process, rather than as an identity. Focus on curiosity, experimentation, effort, discovery, resilience when we make inevitable mistakes and the value of hard work. Try to counter the message that being ‘good at science’ means putting up your hand answering every question correctly. Embrace mistakes and failures generally.

Be interested in what your child says and don’t shut them down, even if they are ‘wrong’. Encourage curiosity, even if what they say isn’t quite right. Talk about things and puzzle them out together. Particularly at this young age, simply encourage scientific thinking and a consideration of why and how things happen. 

Expose children to a variety of scientific role models. Take advantage of the numerous books that are available (both fact and fiction) that feature varied and diverse representations of science, scientists and science activities. The more variety that children see, and the broader their perceptions regarding who can ‘be a scientist’, the more they might think of science as something that is for them.

Think carefully about the language that you use. Use inclusive language and ask a lot of questions, particularly causal questions, which nudge children to consider how and why things happen more deeply.

At home, recognise that you are already ‘doing science’ with your young children. You don’t need to be a ‘sciencey’ person to nudge your child to be curious about how things work and the world around them. Everyday activities, which you are likely doing already, such as cooking, grocery shopping, playing board games and bath time all provide opportunities for scientific discussion. Leverage these opportunities by incorporating scientific conversation into the everyday.

Resources Created from and Related to this Research

Dr Sona Kumar, Postdoctoral Researcher, Department of Human Development and Family Science, Purdue University.

Dr Sona Kumar is a postdoctoral researcher at Purdue University studying how the messages that adults like parents and teachers communicate about who belongs in STEM impacts children’s STEM motivation in early childhood. She works in the Center for Early Learning lab.

Find Dr Kumar’s research here.