Category Archives: Albert Einstein

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.


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.


You can learn more about Golden Apple STEM Institute here.

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How Would Einstein Do It?

My favorite creativity tool is Roger von Oech’s Creative Whack Pack. Whenever I have to redesign an existing idea or come up with something new, if I find myself stuck, I pull out the cards and browse through them for creativity starters. The box they come in advertises, “64 Creativity Strategies to Provoke and Inspire Your Thinking.” And, for me, they do.

Each card has a series of thought-provoking questions printed on it, often with an illustrative story. One of my favorite cards is the one that suggests “Imagine How Others Would Do It.” It poses the following questions: What people do you respect for their creativity? A leader in your field? A teacher? A parent? Now, imagine that one of these people is responsible for developing your concept. What would they do? How would they approach it? How would someone else change your idea?

Creative Whack Pack

Creative Whack Pack

Just imagine taking a lesson of yours, perhaps something tried and true or even a lesson that isn’t quite where you want it to be yet? Or perhaps you need to plan a brand new unit. Or an assignment.

Now ask yourself, “How would our STEM Institute faculty design it.  What would Jim Effinger do? Or Bill Grosser? Or Wayne Wittenberg?” You get the idea.

Sometimes harnessing your own imagination to put someone else in the designer’s chair is a good way to jumpstart your own thinking toward fresher ways of doing something. It’s a kind of role-playing that can help trigger ideas you might not otherwise have had. You’re essentially tapping your own knowledge and memories, but with a helpful intermediary.

Since our subject is science, and specifically redesigning lessons to align with the Next Generation Science Standards and to be more inquiry-based, why not imagine that Albert Einstein is available to assist you with your lesson planning? In a sense, he is, since we have his life as an example and hundreds of quotations from his books and interviews that provide an insight into his mind. And can you imagine a better leader in our particular field than Einstein?

So how would Einstein do it? How would Einstein develop that lesson on genetics or the unit on ecology that you have to have ready for next quarter, the concept you’ve been wrestling with? If you were to turn it over to him, how would Einstein teach it? Let’s do a little thought experiment together. Using his own words, let’s crawl inside the great man’s mind for a bit. As you’re reading the following 25 quotations from Einstein, what great thoughts of your own do they trigger? What would he advise you to do?

Ready? Do you have what you want to work on in mind? Then, let’s begin!

“I am enough of an artist to draw freely upon my imagination. Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.”

“After a certain high level of technical skill is achieved, science and art tend to coalesce in esthetics, plasticity, and form. The greatest scientists are artists as well.”

“In art, and in the higher ranges of science, there is a feeling of harmony, which underlies all endeavor. There is no true greatness in art or science without that sense of harmony.”

“To stimulate creativity, one must develop the childlike inclination for play and the childlike desire for recognition.”

“Combinatory play seems to be the essential feature in productive thought.”

“Play is the highest form of research.”

“The gift of fantasy has meant more to me than my talent for absorbing positive knowledge.”

“It is the supreme art of the teacher to awaken joy in creative expression and knowledge.”

“It is nothing short of a miracle that the modern methods of education have not yet entirely strangled the holy curiosity of inquiry… It is a very grave mistake to think that the enjoyment of seeing and searching can be promoted by means of coercion and a sense of duty.”

“Curiosity has its own reason for existing. One cannot help but be in awe when he contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure of reality.”

Albert Einstein, Champion of "Holy Curiosity"

Albert Einstein, Champion of “Holy Curiosity”

“I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious.”

“A great thought begins by seeing something differently, with a shift of the mind’s eye.”

“All that is valuable in human society depends upon the opportunity for development accorded the individual.”

“Conceptions without experience are void; experience without conceptions is blind.”

“One should not pursue goals that are easily achieved. One must develop an instinct for what one can just barely achieve through one’s greatest efforts.”

“Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.”

“It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer.”

“I believe in intuition and inspiration… At times I feel certain I am right while not knowing the reason.”

“Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.”

“The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them.”

“The important thing is never to stop questioning.”

“The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.”

“The value of an education in a liberal arts college is not the learning of many facts, but the training of the mind to think of something that cannot be learned from textbooks.”

“One of Einstein’s colleagues asked him for his telephone number one day. Einstein reached for a telephone directory and looked it up. ‘You don’t remember your own number?’ the man asked, startled. ‘No,’ Einstein answered. ‘Why should I memorize something I can so easily get from a book?'”

And, while we’re at it, perhaps Einstein has something to say on the subject of standardized tests: Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.

The takeaways are probably quite apparent. It’s rather easy to surmise from reading the quotations what kind of educational experience Einstein would recommend for your students … and what kind he would abhor. Has he given you any ideas for that lesson of yours? Has anything about that unit come into clearer focus for you? How might you leave space for the inner Einstein in your students to emerge?

And that brings me to the benefits of collaboration. This little exercise sets up a kind of collaboration, one between you and a man who was arguably the greatest mind of the 20th century. But you have other great minds all around you … your colleagues. How would they design this lesson? What resources, experiences, and imaginative ideas could they bring to bear on this challenge you’re facing? And what could you contribute to their thinking, as they face the same kinds of challenges that you do?

The Guide says unequivocally, “Individual teachers should not be expected to redesign curriculum unaided. Participation in a group activity to redesign a particular unit can be an effective professional development opportunity.” Just be sure to save Albert Einstein a seat at your table.

~ Penny

You can learn more about Golden Apple STEM Institute here.

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Filed under Albert Einstein, collaboration, inquiry science, professional development