July 16, 2014: I’m happy to announce that my Innocent Experiments book is under advance contract with the University of North Carolina Press, and will be published in 2016.
Since World War II, the discourse around children and science has been held in the form of a postmortem, a series of diagnoses pointing to a commitment gap that never seems to be fixed. The formation “Children don’t love science like they used to” points to an imagined past, full of the joy of experimentation and discovery. Although some now argue that we no longer actually face a scientific “manpower shortage,” the popular belief that we do is deeply ingrained, coming, as it does, from this vision of a lost time of utopian explorations. This book asks what the cultural stakes of this belief might be.
Innocent Experiments: Childhood and the Culture of Public Science in the United States looks at twentieth-century efforts to promote science in American children’s lives, both before and after this postwar watershed, and asks how the changing motivations for these efforts reflect our own awkward reconciliation with science in our culture. Rather than presenting a history of formal science education (of which more than a few already exist), the book takes as its subject those extracurricular projects that have tried to amplify the presence of science in the informal corners of twentieth-century children’s culture—the bits of culture that are supposed to make children “love” science.
As such, it is a history of the emotional commitment to science in American culture. Often, this imagined past takes the form of a memory of unconstrained boyhood days. The book tackles issues of unequal representation in STEM fields from a cultural angle, showing how the dominant emotional modes of idealized childhood science practice—understood as curiosity, individualism, and originality—have aligned with a male childhood of relative leisure.
The book explores histories of science promotion in children’s museums, non-fiction publishing, magazines, toys, contests, and science fiction. Through excavating the motivations and commitments of those scientists, authors, parents, and educators who hoped to inspire children with an everyday science-mindedness, the book shows how a public culture of American science came to depend on the imagery of childhood discovery as its emotional heart, and asks how this imagery might affect the place of science in American public life.