We’ve all heard it – and maybe said it: “well, the kids in this class, won’t…” or “I just can’t get these kids to do the reading…” What learning environment do we create when we refer to college students as “kids?”

College students are adults. Technically, these individuals are generally over 18 years old and pursuing an independent career and life path. Calling them “kids” creates distance, even if this distance is unintentional. The roles of educator, researcher, mentor, student, intern, and trainee are already clear. Is there really more distance needed? The students are having new experiences and growing as individuals. However, respect must be earned by demonstrating responsibility, completing work, and making an effort in the classroom. Although the instructor likely is older, connecting with and engaging the students is an essential part of the educational process. After all, these students are future colleagues and will soon be peer reviewers on upcoming publications.

What about when we talk about “adult learners,” referring to those entering or returning to higher education after more life experiences? The students in the classrooms and undergraduate researchers in the labs are adults already. Again, educators and administrators may be creating another division, between the traditional ages 18-22 crowd and older, non-traditional students.

For science education researchers, the perceived distance often has a different meaning. Researchers studying K-12 education often talk about “kids” in the classes. What about the researchers working in higher education? In conversation, it becomes difficult to distinguish in which area a researcher works when they refer to their research subjects as kids. The perceived distance created seems logical when discussing the K-12 students, since they are children. Perhaps the most efficient way to differentiate the conversation is to choose another term for individuals pursuing higher education. Maybe “kids” can be replaced with something else: “students,” “individuals,” “undergrads,” “research group,” or “those people who show up in class three times a week…” might do the trick.

Let’s switch perspectives. If the college students are “kids,” do the rest of us really want to be the “old people?” Personally, I think I’ll pass on that one (at least until emeritus).

Look for more on STEM Education coming next month!

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1 Comment

Thanks for posting….I’ve thought about this a lot particularly with graduate and medical students who are not kids by any measure. I struggle to find the language that empowers them to drive their projects but respectful and nurtured by the process. Thanks for helping put some of these ideas together.

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