Scientist? It’s Time to Change the Image!

photography by JD Hancock

Play along with me just for a moment.  Be honest now.  When I say the word “scientist,” what is the first image that comes to mind?  Write down a few words that describe that image.  Are you finished?  When you are, read the following account of what happened at a recent school meeting.

Gearing up for the opening of the 2011-2012 school year, over 200 principals and assistant principals of a city school district recently attended a leadership institute with a particular emphasis on instructional leadership.  One of the sessions during the three-day meeting had participants draw the image that first came to mind when given the same word I gave you —scientist.  Before revealing the results, it is important to note that more than half of the people in the leadership positions were female and half were minorities.The results are notable. Two-thirds of the sketches were of Caucasians.  Approximately 90% of the images were of men in a lab with four walls.  Almost 100% of them had a test tube or beaker with bubbles coming out, and virtually all of them had wild and unruly hair.  Results from all over the country have yielded comparable results.

Now go back to your list of characteristics.  Is your image similar?  I think all of us can easily conjure up the image of Einstein, or if you are into parodies Gene Wilder in Young Frankenstein. We hope in the near future that more females and minorities will easily image themselves into everyone’s minds as scientists or mathematicians.  This can happen with our help.

With the technology explosion, the need for science and math majors is growing exponentially, and the U.S. and world colleges and universities are not keeping up with the demand.   It is critical that we draw more females and minorities into science and math careers if we want to meet the country’s and the world’s requirements.  For more information, read the article published in Teaching Tolerance published by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

One company—Sally Ride Science— is taking on the mission of creating quality programs and products in science, math, and technology that “educate, entertain, engage and inspire” the youth of today.  You remember.  Dr. Sally Ride was the first American woman in space.  She founded the company in 2001 because she is dedicated to supporting children’s interests in science, math and technology. By doing this, she believes all children will be better prepared to explore opportunities in high school, college, and beyond that may have not been considered without that support.  The support comes in the way of teacher training and classroom materials that show kids that science is fun, collaborative, creative and fascinating.   According to the company’s website, a key part of the corporate mission is to make a difference in girls’ lives, and in society’s perceptions of their roles in technical fields.

The following facts were taken from one of the company’s training manuals, as was the activity at the beginning of the blog:

Careers by Gender

• In 2007, males earned a majority of bachelor’s degrees awarded in engineering, computer sciences, and physics (81%, 81% and 79% respectively).

• In 2007, the proportion of science and engineering degrees awarded to students of various ethnic backgrounds is 9% Asian/Pacific Islander; 8% Black; 8% Hispanic, and 0.7% American Indian/Alaskan Native.

Science Career Outlook

• Of the 10 fastest growing occupations, nine are science, math, or technology related.

• 80% of jobs in the next decade will require some form of math and science.

• More than 50% of all science and engineering degreed workers are over 40 years old; 26% are over 50 years old.

• Colleges will need to produce four times as many graduates in computer science as they do now to meet the future demand.

So, what do we do?  How do we entice more females and minorities into careers in math, science, and technology-related fields?  We must change the perception of who a scientist is.   Female and minority students must be able to visualize themselves as scientists.  In order to do that, they need exposure to people like themselves who are actually in those fields.   As parents and educators, we can provide those experiences.  We can provide depictions in books and videos.   For example, Elevated Math has produced 20 videos, half of them featuring females, males, and people from a variety of ethnic groups who explain how they use math on the job every day.  These videos can be used to answer the question, “when are we ever going to use this stuff” and can provide that much needed exposure.  Check out the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) Education Coalition website for additional  suggestions.  Also, we can dispel myths about girls, math and science and provide mentoring.   In fact, mentoring is one of the most effective ways of keeping girls on the path toward a STEM career.  So, what do you say?  Ready to help change an image?

by Idaho National Laboratory

3 thoughts on “Scientist? It’s Time to Change the Image!”

  1. Yesterday, I was talking to a group of people about kids, and one father was proud to say that his son did very well in math and science, but when it came to writing, like himself, the kid was struggling. He wondered aloud why boys are better at math and science and girls are better at writing and social studies.

    This false perception with our children runs deep. Parents need to be trained – it’s not just the teachers’ responsibility to correct this image. And it’s not just girls who suffer from the labels we place on them, but the boys suffer too.

  2. You are so right, Lewis. Check out the STEM’s website that is embedded in the blog. There you will find reported observations of how well male students respond when female students are treated more positively and equally in the classroom.
    My own mother, a teacher, told my sister and me over and over about how she was never good in math, but she excelled in the arts and literature. She also added that we must have gotten our math abilities from our dad, an accountant. That doesn’t sound so bad, but the tone and implication were that we were not as feminine as women who were into the “arts and literature.” LOL Unfortunately, all too frequently, females are being given the same subtle messages today, and that is why your advice that parents have to be trained is right on target. Now, the question is how do we go about doing that?

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