WOW – did you see them? they must be scientists!

[This guest post comes from VIMS graduate students Lindsey Kraatz, Sam Lake, Daniel Maxey, and Stephanie Salisbury]

Have you ever walked down a street and seen someone so big, so athletic looking that you instantly thought to yourself “WOW, they must be a football player, they’re huge!”? What about a high-class businessman or a runway model, or maybe a soccer mom driving a mini van? We all have preconceived notions about what how certain people or occupations should look.

But what about scientists? What comes to mind when you picture an average scientist? Do you instantly think of a nerdy Bill Nye who wears coke-bottle thick glasses and a lab coat with a pocket protector? Or do you picture someone breaking stereotypical barriers like Abby on NCIS?

Over the last two years a group of us, graduate student Fellows in the National Science Foundation GK-12 program at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, set out to answer these questions. We wanted to know what local middle and high school students perceived to be a “normal” scientist, and to find out if interacting with real scientists over the course of a school year might change the students’ perceptions. Here’s what we found out:

The inspiration for our project was a classic study by the anthropologists Margaret Mead and Rhoda Métraux, who surveyed 35,000 high school students and analyzed essays on their thoughts about science and scientists in the 1950’s.

A decade later, David Chambers elaborated on that study by incorporating student drawings into the analysis, creating what is now referred to as the “Draw a Scientist Test” (DAST) survey. After surveying over 4800 students over 11 years, Chambers found that seven key attributes were commonly depicted in student drawings:

1. Lab coat (typically white)
2. Eye Glasses
3. Facial Hair
4. Symbols of Research (Beakers, test tubes, microscope, etc)
5. Symbols of Knowledge (Books, skeletons, equations, etc.)
6. Technology (Computers, lab machines, etc)
7. Relevant Caption (Eureka!, etc.)

Some things seemingly never change. Even today, when you Google “images of scientists” you see many of these same attributes:

For our study, we asked students to imagine and draw what they perceived to be a “typical” scientist. They then answered three questions about their drawings: 1) In two sentences, describe what your scientist is doing in YOUR drawing, 2) List 3 words that come to mind when you look at YOUR scientist, and 3) What do you think scientists do on a TYPICAL day?

One of the primary goals of this ongoing project is to improve on previous DAST rubrics and develop a novel approach for analyzing student perceptions. We evaluated each image to classify aspects including personal characteristics, symbols of research, gender, etc. Key modifications we made included the addition of experimental location (lab vs. field) and highlighting marine science characteristics (boat, scuba, etc).

So far, we’ve surveyed students at the beginning of the school year (before meeting us in their classrooms) and then again at the end of their first semester.

What did we find out? Across all of the schools there was a shift from the “geeky” scientist in the lab to (arguably less geeky) individuals in the field conducting research:

Interestingly, all of us noticed an increase in female scientists in the drawings after interaction with scientists in the classroom. Initially, almost 80% of scientists drawn by students were male, but after 4-5 months this proportion fell to only 60%.  This is probably because the fellows found many students were drawing themselves or their respective GK-12 scientist.

Top 5 words for each class before and after fellow exposure in the classroom. Data is missing for 7th grade life science “after” category. Blue = Positive, Purple = Scientific, Orange = Negative

Other trends observed in the analysis include the choice of words used to describe a “typical” scientist, career choice depicted in the drawings, location of experiments, and other general characteristics of the images. Overall, the VIMS “PERFECT” GK-12 fellows found students’ perceptions of scientists was more positive both in the images drawn and in words used to describe them after getting to know their “Scientist in Residence” for a semester in the classroom.

So what’s next?

Several of us will be analyzing all the data. including the new results from end-of-the-year surveys (~10 months) to look for additional trends in the drawings and to compare those results to drawings collected in a “control” classroom where no GK-12 fellow was present. But we feel that the real take-home message is that we are all scientists — whether we’re discovering a new fish species or figuring out which laundry detergent will get the stain out of our new shirt the best. We all hypothesize scientific theories on a daily basis, even if we don’t think about it using those words.

So . . . the next time you see that athletic looking jock walking down the street, think to yourself, “He might be the star scientist that plays football!

Stay tuned for the final results of the study!


The VIMS GK-12 DAST Scientists: Lindsey Kraatz, Sam Lake, Daniel Maxey, and Stephanie Salisbury









7 responses to “WOW – did you see them? they must be scientists!”

  1. Deborah Bronk

    What a great study! Every student in the country should have access to these great young educators! They rock!

  2. It’s interesting to see the shift from lab to field, though the dominance of marine scientists is no doubt an artifact of the scientists they got to meet. Repeat with geologists and we’d probably see more rock hammers than jellies.

    I love that in the final pair of drawings the student went in a completely different direction while still staying true to Rule #1.

  3. A few years ago, a psychologist commented in group discussion that no one who is a scientist has a title that includes the word “scientist”. I am licensed in Nevada as a Clinical Laboratory Scientist/General Supervisor; am a member (i.e., Clinical Laboratory Scientist) of the American Society for Clinical Laboratory Science; and am also a member (i.e., Medical Laboratory Scientist) of the American Society for Clinical Pathology. Nevertheless, my profession is probably one of the most unknown. For example, who do you think tests specimens sent to the hospital or reference laboratory? How do you know that unit of blood is safe for the transfusion? Television programming almost invariably focuses on doctors and nurses; the nationwide shortage of laboratory scientists in the US may begin to make the role we play more clear.

  4. Guys this is a brilliant piece! Incredibly well done.

    Thanks Lindsey Kraatz, Sam Lake, Daniel Maxey, and Stephanie Salisbury! You all have a future in science outreach, which as far as I’m concerned is a key aspect of being a scientist.

  5. Notice in the “before and after words” that fun and creative only appear in after, and dangerous disappears.

    Also “crazy” is not a negative word in this age class. Crazy means doing something that is amazing, that is respected.

    I agree that every student in the country should have access to a visiting scientist in their classroom. I have been going into classrooms for more than 10 years now and it makes such a huge difference. I see these results every year first hand. Many kids come back to me years later and thank me for showing them that we are just normal people, a necessary part of the community. So take a few hours and volunteer today to be that person in your local school!!!

  6. […] scientists! Nice "draw a scientist" study before/after interaction with graduate students (via […]

  7. […] we wrote our last post “WOW – did you see them? they must be scientists”, we were excited just to share some preliminary results from a small, but exciting (to us […]

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