Changing Students’ Misconceptions About Scientists

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A white lab coat. An unsmiling expression. Thick glasses and unkempt hair. In one hand, a device replete with dials and gauges; in the other, a beaker bubbling over with a toxic-looking liquid.

This image, which owes more to the movies than to the laboratory, is nevertheless what many students think of when they hear the word “scientist.” It shows up with striking regularity, for example, in the drawings made by a class of seventh graders from Illinois who were asked their impressions of the scientific profession. The captions underneath their pictures tell the same story: “When I think of a scientist I think of brainy and very weird people,” wrote a boy named James. “I think of lots of bottles with chemicals . . . I think of little gadgets that are used for things that I do not know what they are.”

There’s a lot that students don’t know about scientists, an information gap that must be filled if they’re to imagine a future in science for themselves. Addressing the country’s shortfall of students in the STEM disciplines (science, engineering, technology and mathematics) begins with persuading students that scientists are people, too.

A series produced by the science program NOVA, available online, is a good place to start. The Secret Life of Scientists and Engineers (tag line: “Where the lab coats come off”) features footage of scientists working in their labs and sitting down for interviews. The researchers come off as curious, playful, even goofy—people you might want to befriend, or become.

The same process of humanization can work with written materials. Susan Nolen, a professor of psychology at the University of Washington, gave two different statistics texts to groups of female students. One selection was written in the remote, impersonal style of most textbooks. The other struck a more accessible tone, sharing the writer’s views and opinions on the information. The text with a “visible author,” as Nolen describes it, prompted the students to engage in mental interactions with the author as they read, a process that promoted their understanding and retention of the material.

Perhaps the most effective tactic of all would be to show scientists struggling, making mistakes and even failing. Why is this important for students to see? Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck has demonstrated that children with a “fixed mindset”— a belief that intelligence is innate and unchangeable are less motivated and less resilient than children with a “growth mindset,” the conviction that effort and persistence make a difference. Students should be exposed to stories of great thinkers who struggled, Dweck has suggested, so that they come to realize that “even geniuses work hard.” A new study, published in the Journal of Educational Psychology, reports what happened when researchers did just that.

Huang-Yao Hong of National Chengchi University in Taiwan and Xiaodong Lin-Siegler of Columbia University gave a group of physics students information about the theories of Galileo Galilei, Issac Newton and Albert Einstein. A second group received readings praising the achievements of these scientists. And a third group was given a text that described the thinkers’ struggles, as in this excerpt about Newton’s theory of gravitation: “While the famous fable suggests that Newton was inspired by seeing an apple drop from a tree, it was actually his hard work and inquisitive nature that led to his formulation of a gravitational theory. As he said, ‘I keep the subject constantly before me, till the first dawnings open slowly, by little and little, into the full and clear light.’”

The students who learned about scientists’ struggles developed less-stereotyped images of scientists, became more interested in science, remembered the material better, and did better at complex open-ended problem-solving tasks related to the lesson—while the students who read the achievement-based text actually developed more stereotypical images of scientists.

The impact of encountering scientists as actual people, on the page or in person, is clearly visible in a second set of drawings made by those seventh-graders in Illinois. The students’ teacher took them to visit Fermilab, a high-energy physics research facility near Chicago. There they talked to real live scientists—young and old, white and brown, and none holding gadgets or beakers.

In the drawings they made following the field trip, the white lab coats did indeed come off. One “after” picture featured a young male scientist sporting a striped pullover and a goatee. “Anyone can be a scientist. I saw people walking around in sweatshirts and jeans,” wrote the young artist, a seventh-grader named Amanda. “Who knows? Maybe I can be a scientist.”

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