Mad men in labs

12th September 1997 at 01:00
How do children see scientists? James Williams looks at the dangers of the stereotype

What do Einstein, Dr Jekyll, Neil Armstrong and Frankenstein have in common? They were all named as famous scientists by a group of Year 5 pupils who attended a science day at the Beacon School in Banstead, Surrey. Why did the children lump these disparate figures together?

All children have a mental image of a scientist. Sadly, that vision is usually a stereotype - mad, with glasses, and bald or with wild grey hair - and exclusively male. Science teachers do their best to challenge this image. But all too often with little success.

And the problem goes far deeper than this simple misconception. Children see science itself as a subject for boring boffins, with little room for the kind of creative thought needed to solve the problems of our world.

The Banstead children's vision was revealed in two exercises. One was designed to discover their mental image of a what a scientist looked like, by getting them to produce posters. The other looked at what scientists do for a living.

The posters focused exclusively on the stereotypical image of a scientist. The children saw scientists as cartoon characters, even though they had completed science exercises with young, female science teachers as well as myself (incidentally, not bald, grey or eccentric).

The pupils did not consider science teachers as scientists. We were teachers who happened to teach science, not scientists who happened to teach. Of the 27 pictures and posters of scientists produced, none contained a female scientist and only two had a full head of hair. They all wore glasses, and none appeared "normal" in any way.

For most of the pupils science was about mixing chemicals, making electric circuits and studying dinosaurs. Few considered engineers or doctors as scientists.

Attracting pupils into science careers and making science relevant and interesting to them is a priority for heads of science across the United Kingdom. But before this can happen, we must dispel the image of science as a "boffin" subject.

When asked: "Would you like to be a scientist?" the children split evenly between yes and no. Those who said yes wanted "to find out about things" although they rarely elaborated on what these "things" were. When they did, it was usually to do with space. The few girls in the yes camp had clear ideas about the fun side of science and the interesting things you can learn about the Earth.

The reasons for rejecting a scientific career ranged from "too much writing", and "too difficult" from a girl aged nine, to one l0-year-old boy who said he didn't want to be a scientist "because they are all boffs".

Changing pupil perceptions is difficult. These nine and 10-year-olds had a firm mental picture of a scientist. Trying to combat this in secondary school will not be easy. Trying to fight a pervasive media image of mad scientists bent on world domination will be even harder.

Leaving this challenge until the pupils come to a secondary school is leaving it too late. We must promote positive images of science and scientists in primary schools. Introducing young pupils to models that are far removed from the media hype is essential. This may well mean secondary school scientists - especially female ones - strengthening links with primary schools.

Placing science in everyday contexts and using materials such as the primary SATIS materials from the Association for Science Education will help. But, above all, science must smash the myth that it cannot cater for creative thinkers.

The straitjacket of science is its reliance on experimental notation - the hypothesis, method, results and evaluation. These have a place but that place is far too strongly emphasised, to the extent that pupils believe science is solely concerned with doing experiments and coming up with the right answer. This belief is at odds with the investigative approach that demands creative thinking and the ability to seek new solutions for problems.

Real-life science is about far more than right and wrong, and if we want to increase uptake of science post-16 and attract undergraduates to careers in research and engineering, we must make the subject attractive to the creative thinkers. It is no good having a whole generation at the age of nine or 10 who believe science is a bore and scientists are merely cartoon characters or evil doctors.

James Williams is a lecturer in science education at Brunel University and was formerly head of science at The Beacon School in Banstead

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