Since World War II, our conversations about children and scientific vocation have taken the shape of postmortems, pointing to a commitment gap that never seems to be fixed. The conversational trope “Children just don’t love science like they used to” conjures an imagined past, full of the joy of experimentation and discovery. Although some experts now argue that we no longer actually face a scientific “manpower shortage,” the popular belief that we do persists.

Why do we love this idea so much? What other cultural beliefs—about gender, selfhood, and citizenship—does it reinforce?

My first book, Innocent Experiments: Childhood and the Culture of Public Science in the United States, published by the University of North Carolina Press in the fall of 2016, looks at twentieth-century efforts to promote science in American children’s lives, and asks how these projects reflect American culture’s awkward reconciliation with science.

Experiments 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 been coded as male.

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.