Guilty of Inadvertently Promoting A Stereotype?

I love visiting classrooms, watching teachers facilitate inquiry-based lessons, and seeing our future STEM professionals roll up their sleeves and dive in to the work of science and engineering, marshaling technology and math to be successful in conducting scientific investigations and in meeting engineering challenges. And I love looking around the classrooms that I visit, seeing photos of kids doing science, collections of science themed books, and models from their science and engineering projects. I especially love seeing our Wheel of Inquiry tool in use and the NGSS Science and Engineering Practices posted.

Occasionally, however, I see things that I hope will eventually go away, things that reinforce our cultural stereotypes about scientists. You know the prevailing one. A scientist is old, male, white. He wears a white lab coat, sports a mustache, and has wild hair and crazy eyes. The beaker places him inside, in a laboratory, not out in the field. In fact, that old white science guy is a cartoon Einstein. If he could talk, he’d undoubtedly have a German accent.

scientist-stereotype

If you don’t fit any of those demographics … let’s say you are female or black or Latino or young … then “scientist” is automatically “the other,” and we seem to have a problem these days in the U.S. accepting and trusting those who are different from ourselves. At least some of us do.

These stereotypical images make me wonder if part of the distance between science and our society doesn’t spring from our general stereotypical conception of scientists as being everything we are not. I wonder if our societal aversion to and downplaying of science aren’t linked to our sense that science has no particular relevance to our own lives. And if that’s so, do these same stereotypes make it easier for those with an anti-science agenda to drive a wedge between the public and its scientists?

Humanity has been in that wedge place before. During the Middle Ages, there were three distinct and separate estates, each with its own sphere of operation, its own norms. You belonged to First Estate, the Clergy or “those who pray,” Second Estate, the Nobility or “those who fight,” or Third Estate, the Commoners or “those who work.” And never the trine shall meet, because “during the Middle Ages individuals were born into their class and change in social position was difficult.”

After the French Revolution, the system changed. The press were designated “the Fourth Estate,” with the idea that they would remain independent of the other three. There are definitely barriers between these social groups and, as one authority notes, “Although the three estates were supposed to work together for the common good, their actual history is one of constant friction and conflict.” Funny, isn’t it, how everything old is suddenly new again?

Given the obvious rift between scientists and many in our legislatures and state and federal governments, not to mention many in the general public, perhaps we should acknowledge the existence of a Fifth Estate, comprised of the very highly educated scientists, engineers, mathematicians, technology innovator, somehow separate and distinct from “ordinary” Americans.

And that’s not good.

In this age when the discoveries and results of science and technology are speeding up exponentially and the need for the expertise of their practitioners has never been as critical, e.g., global climate change, we can’t afford to foster any notion that scientists are a separate estate and subject to being in “constant friction and conflict” with everyone else.

So anything we can do to educate against those stereotypical ideas of who and what scientists are would be helpful in letting the majority see common cause with that essential minority. Anything we can do to help our young people see themselves as scientists is all to the good.

The truth is that scientists come in all shapes and sizes, genders, ethnicities, and ages. Witness Hidden Figures (2016), the story of three African American women who were instrumental in getting the U.S. into space, or as the New York Times review headline proclaims, who “Helped NASA Soar.” One line in that review is particularly compelling for me, “Katherine Goble is the central hidden figure, a mathematical prodigy played with perfect nerd charisma …” Mathematical prodigies come in all colors, both genders, and can emerge anywhere in the world. We need them to soar. And we also need to acknowledge and value their contributions.

But what if our cultural stereotypes get in the way of that emergence?

It seems to me that we should cast a critical eye around our classrooms and consider the messages we send to students through the choices we make about what to display and how to arrange things. Those decisions form a hidden curriculum that also teaches, that teaches in tandem with our lessons and our words and perhaps more powerfully because subliminally. So, let’s be thoughtful about those images, those messages.

I think our classrooms should communicate: “Anyone can be a scientist, an engineer, a mathematician, or a technology innovator. ANYONE. In writing we say, showing is better than telling. Isn’t the same true in classrooms? So what can you do to show students that STEM is for ANYONE? For EVERYONE?

Here’s how teacher Brenda Martinez at Tonti Elementary delivered that message, and it’s an image I’ve featured before in this blog.

Who is a Scientist

Brenda Martinez told me, “I do a 2 week unit on what is a scientist and print out pictures of all sorts of different scientists in their fields so that students don’t just think of someone in a lab with a lab coat. We talk about what they do and what tools they use. Then I take pictures of my students doing science so they can see that they are also scientists, and post those photos on the same poster.”

For me this collage is worth a thousand words. I love how the pictures of the children doing science are intermingled with a very diverse representation of actual scientists … in the field, in white coats or not, young, and female, and black and white, Asian and Latino. Anyone can be a scientist. Everyone is.

Now let’s help them get that message and see themselves as future STEM professionals who will help solve the many challenges humanity faces in the 21st century.

And this, gentle reader, is my 100th blog post.

~Penny

You can learn more about Golden Apple STEM Institute here.

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