Sunday, August 1, 2010

Anyone Can Be a Scientist

A small study conducted ten years ago asked 7th graders to draw pictures of a scientist before and after a visit to Fermilab where they saw and talked to actual scientists.  There is renewed interest in this study, which is being discussed on several blogs.

If you take a look at the sketches reproduced on the study's website, you’ll see that before meeting a scientist, the students were more likely to depict a stereotypical male, mad scientist in a lab coat. They met both male and female scientists who clearly loved their careers.  After their field trip to Fermilab, their drawings changed, but there was an interesting divergence between male and female students:

Before the field trip, 36% of the girls drew female scientists. After the visit, 57% drew a female scientist.

For the boys…they drew 100% male scientists before their visit to Fermilab. Afterwards, 100%.....drew male scientists.

Leaving aside the point that perceptions may have changed in the last ten years, I was struck by the persistence of boys to envision scientists as male. Does this result indicate that boys cling to a belief about science being a male profession, despite evidence to the contrary? Or does it simply reflect their identification with the male scientists and are envisioning themselves or other boys becoming a scientist? Are girls better able to identify with others regardless of gender, whereas boys find it more difficult seeing women as role models?

The girls drew either male or female scientists before and after their visit with real scientists; one even changed her drawings from female to male. Boys consistently drew male scientists. Several of the boys mentioned that the scientists played sports and did other outdoors activities—which they seemed to identify with.

A common theme for both boys and girls was the revelation that scientists likable and interesting.  Most of the students mentioned how they learned that scientists are “regular people”.
Amanda: “ . . . . anyone can be a scientist. I saw people walking around in sweatshirts and jeans. Who knows? Maybe I can be a scientist.

David: “The scientists are really nice and funny people. I first thought of the scientist as a nerdy person or someone walking around with a laptop. Now after I visited Fermilab I know what a real scientist is like. They are just like you and me.

Beth: “My picture of a scientist is completely different than what it used to be! The scientist I saw doesn¹t wear a lab coat. . . . The scientists used good vocabulary and spoke like they knew what they were talking about.

I liked this comment by Matt, which sums up how most scientists feel about their work: “With most jobs you might say, "When is it ever going to be five thirty?" But the scientists I talked to say, "Is it five thirty, already?"

Some students were particularly articulate, like Marisa: “A scientist is hardworking, studious, detail-oriented, observant, intelligent, exacting, and patient. When I think of a scientist, I think of someone who sets out to find the facts without predetermining what the outcome is. During this process a scientist must be fair, honest and unbiased. A scientist must be exact by following all directions and recording every step and observation, so that the experiment can be reduplicated. He/she must check and double-check all of his/her work. A scientist is very important in our lives because all of the experiments he/she does in the lab can affect our health, environment, nutrition, and other aspects of our daily and future life.

There are some interesting messages here:

1. The view of scientists as odd, nerdy, stuck indoors, not athletic....not “regular people”, seems to influence young people’s consideration of science as a career.

2. Girls accept either male or female role models, whereas boys may ignore/resist female role models.

3. A girl's view of science and scientists may be altered by seeing female role models.

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