Drawn to men in white coats

12th March 1999 at 00:00
By six, girls have learned to paint the stereotypical scientist - male, old and balding. Chris Magowan reports in National Science Week

WHEN girls start school they often draw a woman if asked to depict a scientist. But by the age of six they tend to portray scientists as old, balding men in white coats.

Research based on children's drawings suggests that introducing compulsory science education for all primary pupils has done nothing to combat stereotypes.

More than 80 per cent of 11-year-old girls draw scientists as males, according to a study by Professor Douglas Newton of the University of Newcastle and Dr Lynn Newton of Durham University.

Professor Newton and Dr Newton asked 1,000 children aged between four and 11 to draw pictures of scientists, in fieldwork conducted in 1997, and compared the results with similar research in 1990. Despite the subsequent introduction of the national curriculum, forcing primaries to teach science to all pupils from the age of five, images of science and scientists had changed very little.

"It is disappointing," Professor Newton said. "We had expected that, after six or seven years, things would have changed as a result of children being taught science at primary level. But there has been little significant movement.

"We are suggesting that teachers give significant attention to children's perceptions. That they find out what they are and that they deliberately go about changing them," he said.

The study suggests that conventional reactions to the problem, such as inviting more women scientists to meet children, are not the answer.

Professor Newton warned that there was strong evidence that children's views of science were determined outside the classroom.

The drawings studied showed that that most children equated science with chemistry, but there is very little chemistry in the primary school curriculum .

"We are looking into the possibility that some children have two separate ideas of science: one of school science and one of real science."

Television, cartoons and parental expectations all appeared to have a powerful influence on children's images of real science.

"And we must also look at that reality. In many respects, children have a fairly realistic perception of it. Unfortunately, in subjects such as physics, there is actually a predominance of men," he added.

"The Draw a Scientist Test: What do young children think of science and scientists?" appears in the spring edition of Topic, the education resource pack produced by the National Foundation for Educational Research

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