Eden H. sent in an interesting post about kids’ stereotypes of scientists. The U.S. Department of Energy’s Fermilab conducted an interesting project where 7th graders were asked to draw and describe a “scientist” before and after visiting the lab on a class trip. When students visit, they first read about the Fermilab, then come to the lab and meet with some of the scientists and talk about their work. From the Fermilab website:

What we changed for this field trip was the before and after descriptions and small group sessions for each student to meet with two of three physicists rather than one large group session. We deliberately chose a typical white male, a young female and an African American physicist. We let the students and physicist take their discussion where they wanted.

Here are some of the before-and-after pictures and descriptions (all 31 are available here):

In general, the students seemed to come away with an idea of scientists as being more like “normal” people, not just stereotypical geeks in lab coats. But some of the other changes are interesting, too. The author of the post at Restructure! analyzed the before-and-after images (as best as she could identify the sex of the drawings):

  • Among girls (14 in total), 36% portrayed a female scientist in the “before” drawing, and 57% portrayed a female scientist in the “after” drawing.
  • Among boys (17 in total), 100% portrayed a male scientist in the “before” drawing, and 100% portrayed a male scientist in the “after” drawing.

I looked through all of them and only saw one instance (posted above) where the child changed the scientists to be clearly non-White.

Of course this is a small sample, but the results seem to reproduce what other studies I’ve read about (sorry, I’m in L.A. and don’t have the specific citations with me) have found regarding the importance of role models and gender stereotyping, in particular, that girls are more likely to imagine themselves  in careers when they see women doing them. For instance, the relative lack of female professors in male-dominated departments such as engineering may play a role in discouraging women from choosing to major in such fields (as well as other factors such as steering, concerns about family/work conflicts, etc.).

I was surprised to see that none of the boys changed the sex of the scientist they drew, though, and only one child changed the race (there’s no info on the race/ethnicity of the students who drew them). Thoughts about what’s going on there?

And does anyone know of any studies on whether more passive exposure to role models — say, seeing female scientists in textbooks — has the same impact as active exposure such as that explained here?

Gwen Sharp is an associate professor of sociology at Nevada State College. You can follow her on Twitter at @gwensharpnv.
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