And so it begins: Scientific Sterotypes
My daughter’s homework this week wasn’t too unusual – a little bit of maths, a reading book and some writing and comprehension. Her writing exercise was linked to her current project work, which is related to science this term. For the past few weeks she has been looking at magnets and some of their properties (in a simple sense, as she is only in Primary 3). What particularly caught my eye was the picture used to illustrate her assignment, which was to write a few sentences using appropriate adjectives and descriptions, of a hugely stereotypical ‘scientist’ in the old man Einstein mold with a set of test tubes.
In a generic sense this is fine, take an image and write some descriptive words and phrases about it and then put these into more context within some sentences. I can’t really argue with that. What I do take issue with is the tired old cliche of the stereotypical scientist. This is the type of thing that seeps into kids brains, and while it maybe not put them off, it does add to their perception of science as being uncool. At the moment I think the kids love science, they like doing experiments, and finding things out – but give them ten years of these stereotypes and it begins to become a problem. This is where it starts.
Additionally, I like to imagine my daughters are capable of anything, and that being much better scientists that I will ever amount to is well within their grasp – but again years of reinforcement of scientists being slightly disheveled old men will ultimately take its toll (I should point out that I am a dishevelled male scientist, so maybe I’m on shaky ground here). I made this point to my duaghter, and as she is a good pupil, she stuck up for her teacher. Apparently the character is from a computer game they use at school. But in a way I hope the teachers can do better. Then, of course, I realised that the teachers at primary school probably don’t know better – these are the stereotypes that they have grown up with. Teachers don’t have my same concern about the lack of female students in, for example, physics and engineering subjects and jobs because they are, through no fault of their own, unaware this is an issue. Science communication needs to extend much further than just the pupils.
I have watched with interest the development of, for example, projects like Sciencegrrl, and Geek Girl Scotland, with a dispassionate interest – I sympathise their cause and see the need for such iniatives, but I didn’t quite see how it fits in with me. Now I can – so I’ll get a Sciencegrrl calendar and pass it on to my local school, and as, for the moment, the Head of Physics at Dundee University, I will try to look at ways to improve our attractiveness to female applicants, and explore ways in which we might help out more in the community to try and stop such stereotypes staying as wide spread as they are.
Update: I have now ordered a Science Grrl calendar, so will donate it to my kids’ school when it arrives. You should get one too.