Literacy with regard to Science Technology Engineering Mathematics (STEM) is considered worldwide to be a key factor in societal growth. Research and education are therefore strongly geared towards fostering STEM literacy. Cultural artefacts for the young, such as children's books, are rarely included in these efforts. That omission is deplorable, because children's concepts of science are not only constructed in schools or museums. Stories and books contribute to children's identity construction, to their worldviews, and to their perception of STEM. Contemporary children's literature is characterized by a great diversity in terms of target groups, genres and literary quality, but science is a recurrent topic. We find scientific themes in popular series, awarded books (in particular in so-called literary nonfiction) and as the focus of the children's book week. The rich array of contemporary children's books offers a varied image of STEM and scientists and can thus counteract the stereotypical image of the male, old and confused scientist that children encounter time and again in popular culture.
This research project therefore focuses on contemporary children's books carrying schemes, scripts and metaphors related to STEM, in order to assess their potential contribution to STEM-education and to reflections on science and scientists. Based on theories and models from cognitive sciences, we analyze a corpus of children's fiction and nonfiction for children aged 6 to 14, published in 2000-2015. First, we map the diversity of scientists as characters in the children's books. In addition to the importance of gender that is highlighted in STEM-education, we also draw attention to age, social class, race, and physical and mental abilities. Second, we explore the narratological features that are used to address children as budding scientists. Crucial is the concept of scientific agency, that is the way in which STEM is shown to increase (or limit) the power and opportunities of growth for the characters. Next, we analyze how children's books teach scientific knowledge and skills and how they cast the relationship between science and society. In the course of this analysis, we focus on recurrent scripts, such as the Eureka experience, or the Frankenstein plot.
This project is the first to apply models from cognitive poetics to children's literature about STEM. In addition, it is unique in studying both fiction and non-fiction for children, and exploring a corpus of contemporary Dutch-language children's literature that has been neglected by literary scholarship. Finally, in connecting STEM education and literary scholarship, this project aims to have a significant social impact.