Science falls into a black hole

2nd March 2001 at 00:00
David Henderson reports on the struggle to shake off a nutty professor image.

Brainy professors in white coats, with sticky-up hair and glasses, acting eccentrically in labs surrounded by test tubes remains the lasting image of scientists.

A study of Scottish primary children has confirmed that scientists are almost invariably seen as older men and, sadly, there is no change to the traditional portrayal, according to a spot survey carried out by Children in Scotland with backing from the Scottish Executive.

The findings were disclosed at a two-day national conference on children and science at Dynamic Earth in the capital earlier this week.

Paul Tansey, a 12-year-old from Royal Mile primary in Edinburgh who was attending the Dynamic Earth event, described scientists as "big persons with big brains".

Ten-year old Nick McKay said scientists had "glasses, a white coat and work in a lab". From the girls' point of view, 11-year-old Robyn Scott described a scientist as "a big person with big hair". Did she want to be a scientist? "I don't think so, I'd rather do other things," she replied, although she liked the discoveries involved in science projects.

Their remarks echo those of children in a study, carried out in January at Low Port primary, Linlithgow, and Pitreavie primary, Dunfermline.

Researcher Jennifer Wallace said the stereotype of the mad scientist was a key factor in turning pupils, especially girls, away from science. "The gender bias that came out was astonishing and I did not think it would be as pronounced as it was. Young girls do not see themselves as scientists. Five-year-olds did not mind but somehow four years later their views have changed."

In the first years of school, children have very little idea of what science is or what scientists do, but they enjoy activities. By mid-primary, enthusiasm is still high and extends to home and leisure time.

"Despite the children's positive attitude to their ativities, the association in their minds between those and their notions of the adult concept of science is vague. The young children do not associate their activities with science at all," the study states.

It continues: "By nine years of age, children acquire a media-based stereotype of scientists. They do have explicit notions of what a scientist looks like and what 'he' does but their drawings show a male, comic, nerdish and generally negative image."

Girls aged nine and 10 have already decided science is not for them and see it as male activity, confirming the cultural associations.

An international study showed that children lose the comic association by the age of 13 but they still have a narrow view of science, unrelated to normal life, the report adds.

Pupils also fail to appreciate that science is purposeful. "They see science as 'experiments' but are not clear what these might be for," it adds.

Ms Wallace said interviews with teachers highlighted their already well-established discomfort in delivering 5-14 science. They wanted more resources and training.

Leader, page 16 "Why is the sky blue? Young people's perceptions and experience of science" is available from www.children


* Scientific activities should be clearly identified from an early stage and hands-on activities increased * Pupils would benefit from specialised science teaching and greater resources.

* Examples of science's value to society should be included in primary teaching and children encouraged to think critically about wider social, environmental and ethical implications.

* Out-of-school activities should be encouraged, such as science clubs and visits to museums and centres.

* Government and media should try to eliminate cultural stereotypes and promote young and female images for science.

* Ministers need to stress the relevance of scientific literacy to the community.

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