Impressions of Scientists: Before and After

Ten years ago, a seventh-grade class did an intriguing project. The students drew pictures and wrote descriptions of what they thought scientists were like. Then the entire class visited Fermilab, a US accelerator physics lab. After the visit, the students created a new set of drawings and descriptions of scientists.

The results are here, on a Fermilab outreach page.

Almost all of the “before” pictures drawn by these students show a man in a white lab coat holding a test tube. Many of the scientists depicted are balding, wearing glasses, and have a shirt pocket stuffed full of pens. The accompanying written descriptions talk about people who are “kind of crazy, talking always quickly,” “a very simple person . . . simple clothes, simple house, simple personality;” someone who “never got into sports as a child; he was always trying to get his straight A grades even higher,” is “brainy and very weird,” and “has pockets full of pens and pencils.” The descriptions from female students are particularly fixated on the stereotyped image of a geeky guy in a lab coat. Many of the students described someone who does try to do good things, who tries to make the world a better place, but they are still a person who is ultra-smart in some obscure way that does not relate to the students.

The “after” drawings and descriptions were quite different. Gone were the lab coats, test tubes, and glasses. Some of the background items like desks or computers remained, but the students drew men in jeans and tee shirts and women in ordinary blouses. Suddenly, “scientists” are people who “are interested in dancing, pottery, jogging and even racquetball” and “are just like a normal person who has kids and life.” The scientist “doesn’t wear a lab coat” and “got normal grades in school.” Scientists “come in all shapes and forms,” “aren’t very different from everyone else,” “played sports, still play some sports or still watch and go to games,” “are really nice and funny people.” One of these seventh graders “even saw a person with a Bulls shirt on.”

In the new descriptions, I saw that many of the students realized that scientists were not driven to science by their intelligence, by social rejection, or by an innate need to best everyone around them in intellectual gamesmanship; but by a passion to discover, to create, to invent, to explain, and to improve our everyday lives. Scientists chose their careers because they love science and are dedicated to answering the questions they pose. And that love remains with them. They are pursuing a dream, doing what they want to do and have wanted to do for much of their lives. In the words of one student, “if you want to be a scientist, be like these wonderful people and live up to your dreams.”

Many of these students also came away with a new sense that with this passion and dedication, they could be scientists, too. While few of them put the idea in those words, a number of descriptions echoed the phrase “they are just like you and me.” Some thought that “a scientist’s job looks like a lot of fun” because “they can do whatever they want and they still get paid for it.” One girl in the class even went so far as to say “Who knows? Maybe I can be a scientist!” I was particularly glad to see the work of the  girls like Amy, who started with a fairly stereotyped image of the balding, nearsighted man in a white coat, but ended up with a woman in ordinary street clothes who has a full set of hobbies along with her love of science. Even if Amy didn’t write “I could be a scientist, too,” her after-visit picture probably looks a lot more like she thought of herself in seventh grade.

The “Who’s a Scientist?” page was last updated in May 2000. Now that those students are old enough to have graduated from college, I’d love to see someone get back in touch with them to see how many pursued science in college and how many of them have gone on to advanced studies or to scientific careers!

I love the idea of this project, and I wish more schools in this country would do similar things. It would be incredibly valuable for our students to see that it’s not just brains that make a scientist, and the required brains don’t crowd out all the other qualities that make people interesting or friendly or outdoorsy or social or anything else these students might want to be. We physicists and chemists and astronomers and biologists and geologists are not merely adult versions of the stereotypical middle-school nerds!

(Those are the computer scientists.)

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