Scientists are “normal” people, children discover


In Drawings of Scientists, seventh graders draw and describe their image of scientists before and after a visit to Fermilab.

The scientist has big square-shaped glasses and a big geeky nose with brown hair and blue eyes. I see a scientist working in a lab with a white lab coat . . . holding a beaker filled with solutions only he knows. Scientists are very interesting people who can figure out things we don’t even know exist. 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 think of a scientist as very dedicated to his work. He is kind of crazy, talking always quickly. He constantly is getting new ideas. He is always asking questions and can be annoying. He listens to others’ ideas and questions them. I know scientists are just normal people with a not so normal job. . . . Scientists lead a normal life outside of being a scientist. They are interested in dancing, pottery, jogging and even racquetball. Being a scientist is just another job which can be much more exciting.
A scientist is hard working, studious, detail-oriented, observant, intelligent, exacting, and patient. Most people think of a scientist as a person who is nerdy, studious, scholarly, and a person who is devoted to her job and doesn¹t have much of a personality or isn¹t very interesting. This is a stereotype and today just proves that scientists have lives, interests, hobbies, families and friends. I find that scientists are very, very interesting

Here are some interesting gender statistics about these drawings (if I correctly perceive the children’s genders and the scientists’ genders in the children’s drawings):

It looks like a visit to Fermilab has no impact on boys’ gender stereotypes about scientists, but it has a strong impact on challenging girls’ gender stereotypes about scientists. For girls, there was a 58% increase in female scientist representation in their drawings; for boys, there was a 0% increase in female scientist representation in their drawings.

If boys grow up to be men, and empirical evidence has no effect on males’ gender stereotypes about scientists, how do we challenge males’ association of science with maleness?

Here are more statistics:

Not only do seventh graders have these stereotypes about scientists, but it appears that most adults do as well. Perhaps the anti-science sentiment among some adults arises from the common stereotype that scientists are elitist white male geniuses who are not “regular” people, which was impressed into their minds at a tender age and reinforced through years of mass media consumption. While it may be true that scientists can have very different life experiences, the same can be said for any other occupation or social group. There is nothing inherently male about science or scientists. Stereotypes and discrimination exist among scientific communities, just like in “regular” communities.


Scientific Stereotype:

A fairly formal assay of children’s views of scientists was undertaken recently by a team at Leicester University in England and Australia’s Curtin University of Technology. Although the results have not yet been published, based on preliminary analysis the main conclusion from the research is that children think of scientists as boring white men with glasses, beards, and strange hair. According to lead researcher Tina Jarvis, director of Leicester’s School of Education, many children say they do not want to be a scientist because scientists never have fun!

Jarvis and colleagues, along with Lionie Rennie of Curtin, studied the responses of more than 4,000 children in Britain and Australia over the last eight years and concluded that the stereotypes persist, at least among six- to eight-year-olds. Worryingly, children of Asian and African-Caribbean descent generally held the same opinion as their white peers. Most children’s sketches of scientists endowed them with a white, male face and the usual eccentric hair. Boys, Jarvis says, never drew women, and girls did so only very occasionally. While there may well be a minority of scientists who fit the category, it indicates a very narrow view of scientists, one that is so very often reinforced through TV programs and cartoons, comic books, and comments from nonscientist parents and other adults. We then wonder why so many girls and non-white children find it very difficult to envision themselves as future scientists.