Kids and Science: An Interview with Rebecca Onion

Rebecca Onion is perhaps best known to our readers as a staff writer at Slate, where she started The Vault blog in November 2012 and co-hosted a podcast called “The History of American Slavery” for Slate Academy. Rebecca holds a PhD in American Studies from the University of Texas at Austin, and her first book was released in October. Yesterday we reviewed Innocent Experiments: Childhood and the Culture of Popular Science in the United States, and Rebecca was kind enough to talk with us about her book over email.

Laura Ansley: Today we hear constant laments that more children need to be steered into STEM fields, or that majoring in the humanities won’t get college students careers that pay well and have job security. You’ve written a history of popular science education that shows these concerns are not new to the 21st century. What drew you to study this topic?

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).

Rebecca Onion: As I wrote in my book’s conclusion, I was a child who always thought I should be more interested in STEM things than I was. Somewhere along the line — probably because I read some book hailing from the same genre of promotional children’s culture I explore in my history — I picked up the idea that children were inherently fascinated in making and experimenting. I wasn’t! I liked reading and writing, and I agonized over it; I wondered what was wrong with me. Thinking back on that experience as a graduate student academically interested in how prescriptive or didactic children’s culture affects children’s lives, I began to be intrigued by thinking about the history of science promotion, when viewed as a history not just of education, but of ideology.

LA: In the book, you argue popular science was a way to encourage children (mainly white, middle-class, male children) to be curious and to frame the consumption of goods in a positive way. How did these become positive traits?

RO: Curiosity was, before the nineteenth century, framed as something of a pesky childhood trait in England and the United States. The idea was that a child should discipline his or her curiosity in order to stay within the bounds of obedience (I’m stating it broadly!) The creation of a children’s culture that encouraged curiosity, especially in the “right” kind of children (white boys), came along with an increased romanticism around childhood in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, just as the consumer market for child-specific objects and items was expanding. The idea that people in the early 20th century found ways to reconcile children’s acquisitiveness with positive values of curiosity isn’t mine — I believe it’s Lisa Jacobson who first came up with it — but I found it very helpful in trying to understand the way chemistry sets and science toys were sold in that era.

LA: The white, middle-class, and male nature of this movement is also a big focus of the book. Why was popular science aimed at these boys? Is this focus to blame for today’s continued lack of equal representation for women and people of color in STEM fields?

Photo of the Chemistry XP4000 set, c. 1986. (Gregory Tobias/Chemical Heritage Foundation Collections)
Photo of the Chemistry XP4000 set, c. 1986. (Gregory Tobias/Chemical Heritage Foundation Collections)

RO: One of the ideas that I really came to in writing the book, and that I still think of all the time, is that science-mindedness (as many of the educators I wrote about would have described it) was tied up with boyishness in very particular ways. Boyishness meant a kind of healthy mischief — a salutary lack of discipline that adults in the late nineteenth through the twentieth centuries found very attractive to think about. Consistently, when people talk about the “death” of the chemistry set, they are thinking wistfully about the time when a boy could be free to blow up his house from the basement up — a scenario that’s viewed with no small amount of nostalgia. I found myself wondering what the boy’s sisters and mother were doing while he was tinkering in the basement or the bedroom closet. Who had to clean up after those experiments? If a girl was naughty or dirty in this “scientific” way, how did the people around her react differently to her actions?

And “to blame” is such a complicated concept! In writing this book I really wanted to think beyond stereotype and representation (though those are important!) and think about the way everyday treatment of boys and girls might have changed their likelihood to become interested in science over the years. If a girl in the 1970s was told that science could be “for girls too,” but then also that girls shouldn’t like being messy, and was given more chores than the boys in her family, thereby curtailing her time to play around — sure, I’m convinced that has probably had an effect.

LA: We all have those moments where you find that one source that makes you go, “Wow!” Can you tell us about one of those instances for this project?

RO: The best example is probably the “alumni” magazines that the Science Talent Search contestants used to keep in touch with each other, which I viewed in the archive of STS materials at the Smithsonian. These were such great places to see direct evidence of how college students working in scientific fields viewed their relationships to one another and to science. There, I also found many little stories of college women who had given up their scientific vocations, either permanently or temporarily.

Chemistry students doing lab work at Woodrow Wilson High School in 1943. (Esther Bubley/US Library of Congress | Public domain)
Chemistry students doing lab work at Woodrow Wilson High School in 1943. (Esther Bubley/US Library of Congress | Public domain)

LA: The history of childhood and youth is a growing field. What did you find the most rewarding about researching and writing children’s history? The most challenging?

RO: The most interesting and rewarding thing about childhood studies is the way it pokes a fork into a field of culture that a lot of people view as stable, innocent, natural, or beyond ideology. The most challenging thing is breaking through that view of childhood, to claim it as a legit field of inquiry.

LA: What reception did you get during the writing of the book? How did people respond to the idea of a history of kids’ popular science and consumption?

RO: Well, in line with what I just wrote, some of the most difficult part of writing this book has come in explaining that it’s not an argument for science in childhood, one way or another; it’s an exploration of what it’s meant that we’re so fixated on science in childhood. Which are two different things.

LA: Has writing a history of popular science influenced the way you look at your career as a writer of popular history for outlets like Slate?

RO: Oh, I think about it all the time! There are really interesting parallels between science communication and history communication, as well as divergences. I don’t believe in cheerleading historical communication too much; I run into the assumption all the time that every piece of popular history has to be frontloaded with narrative; has to avoid ambiguity and argument; and has to constantly make an argument for its own existence. I think it works better when popular history makes the stakes of disciplinary arguments clear, and doesn’t try too hard to present historical conclusions as set and stable. History, like science, is a project, and I think it’s much more honest and interesting to present it that way.

LA: Who is your favorite popular science educator today? (I lean towards the timeless Ms. Frizzle.)

RO: I feel ignorant about this! Since my research took me up to the 1980s, with a classic last-chapter gloss on my conclusions, I feel like I’m not educated enough to pronounce. My nieces have a great pair of children’s books by Andrea Beaty and David Roberts — Ada Twist, Scientist and Iggy Peck, Architect — that I like. And I’m about to have a child of my own; ask me again in 4-7 years?

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