Learning to Love Science: Rebecca Onion’s Innocent Experiments and the History of an American Cultural Tradition

As a child, did your parents encourage you to participate in a science fair? Perhaps you received a chemistry set or model of the solar system for your birthday. Were you, like me, completely and utterly obsessed with dinosaurs to the point that you begged your parents for books on paleontology and tried to plow through Jurassic Park long before your reading level allowed (RIP Michael Crichton)? Your family members, teachers, and friends likely reinforced such behavior, attempting to convince you of the seemingly obvious: science was fun and you wanted to learn. After delving into Rebecca Onion’s Innocent Experiments: Childhood and the Culture of Popular Science in the United States, you may begin to question whether you were indulging in personalized — or even natural — reactions to science at a young age.

In her book, Onion explores the “evolving ideologies and expressions of the ideal of science play across the cultural locations where they appear.” Through an examination of popular science outlets, including home labs, children museums, and talent searches, Onion argues that the trope of the innocent and inherently imaginative child scientist is “culturally derived and … had real influence” on the lives of Americans in the modern era. Children of the late-twentieth and early-twenty-first centuries are inheritors of this cultural legacy — yes, even you and your third-grade triceratops backpack.1

Cover of Rebecca Onion's Innocent Experiments: Childhood and the Culture of Popular Science in the United States (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2016).
Cover of Rebecca Onion’s Innocent Experiments: Childhood and the Culture of Popular Science in the United States (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2016).

Onion’s work makes several contributions to existing literature on the history of childhood, science, and nationalism in America. Each chapter reveals how “the folding of science into the set of activities deemed ‘typical’ or ‘right’ for children to practice in their leisure time meant that science would take on some of the universality and purity of childhood.” In other words, “science and childhood, as concepts associated with innocence, naturalness, purity, and timelessness, would mutually reinforce each other” in popular discourse.

Parents, educators, and politicians alike embraced the association by enrolling children in science camps, founding science-centered museums, and creating as many opportunities as possible for children to fill their leisure time with the productive exploration of the natural world through play. Their efforts affected more than the young. Onion reveals how “the belief in a child’s joy in science, as practiced independently in leisure hours, has changed adult understandings of the meaning of science itself.”

American adults rarely characterize science as the complex, and often esoteric, field that it is, instead opting for a more functional definition: science courts the interests of children and channels their actions to achieve specific, ideological ends. Those ends have changed with time, but were almost always linked to national goals. For example, Progressive-Era advocates for popular science hoped children would engage in the investigative field and leave behind less desirable activities, such as general delinquency, to become better citizens. Ultimately, it is impossible to separate the child scientist from Americanization in the twentieth century.2

Perhaps the most well-developed aspect of Onion’s study is her examination of the gendered history of science-as-play.

Since the turn of the nineteenth century, American adults understood scientific inquiry to be an overwhelmingly male activity. This does not mean that girls were barred from entering science museums or denied access to their brothers’ chemistry sets. Instead, adults encouraged girls to interact differently with these institutions and toys than their male counterparts.

Screenshot from Dexter's Laboratory. (CN)
Screenshot from Dexter’s Laboratory. (CN)

For example, in the 1910s, staff at the Brooklyn Children’s Museum allowed girls to use the facility’s library to learn about science, but discouraged them from conducting their own experiments. In fact, Onion writes, the museum’s “club that did scientific work that involved climbing about on roofs and performing ‘original’ theorizing — was one made up only of boys.” The relevance of Onion’s gendered analyses extends beyond the chronology of her narrative (the last chapter ends with the Cold War). If, like me, you grew up in the 1990s, TV shows like Dexter’s Laboratory or The Adventures of Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius immediately come to mind. The depictions of Dexter entering his “Anti Girl Zone” lab or Jimmy teaming up with his bro-force, Carl and Sheen, to save the world also characterized scientific innovation as a boys-only sport.3

Overall, Onion’s book is an excellent history of a trope that is alive and well in the twenty-first century. Yet, like all good books, it leaves me wanting to know more. I am curious how the American association between science and childhood is different from, or similar to, other educational fields that equate learning and innocent fun. Art, for example, was the domain of cultural elites in the Victorian era. However, by the 1960s and ’70s, American parents gifted their children coloring books and enrolled them in summer art classes to release their abundant creative energies.

Even in my own experience as an instructor, I have witnessed my students — without fail — get psyched about coloring activities and lament the passage of their childhoods when crayons were an everyday part of their lives. What is the difference between art-as-play and science-as-play? Could a comparison between the two illuminate even more about the history of American childhood? Regardless of the answers to those questions, I hope that more scholars will engage in studies like Onion’s and question whether perceived norms or naturalized tropes can be historicized or explained by cultural studies.


  1. Rebecca Onion, Innocent Experiments: Childhood and the Culture of Popular Science in the United States (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2016), 15, 165. Return to text.
  2. Ibid., 4-5. Return to text.
  3. Ibid., 34-35. Return to text.

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I grew up in the ’60s and ’70s and in hindsight, I know those gendered stereotypes were ubiquitous, but I was blissfully unaware. I was also blissfully unaware of the ‘silos’ of knowledge – I was (and remain) curious about everything, and how everything links together – learning about ancient Egypt inevitably involved their art, science, technology, politics, sociology etc. It wasn’t until high school that I began to perceive the boundaries people put around fields of knowledge (like the time periods allocated to its pedagogy) – I resisted it then, and resist it still.


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