Children have interesting ideas about scientists. As part of a group project three of us science communication students went to a primary school to ask the children what they think scientists actually do.
To begin with the children told us that scientists discover things, solve mysteries and, like every good superhero, fix things that go wrong. They were also intent on the idea of science being like a detective investigation. They may have meant this literally. One of the boys gave this explanation to his drawing: “My scientist is Mr Gin Gin. He’s doing a CSI investigation. He’s investigating who killed the guy…”
Apart from the detective side of science, the kids constantly referred to ‘potion-making’ as routine in the lab. Whether this is the curse of Harry Potter I’m not sure, but in almost every one of their drawings there would be a rack of multi-coloured potions. Explosions also make up an important part of a scientist’s day. This is why labs are built underground, so that it’s safe for the neighbours.
There was so much talk about things ‘going wrong’ for scientists that I asked my group whether they thought scientists were scary. They found this hilarious. All except for one boy who said that although scientists weren’t scary, what they made could sometimes be frightening.
The secretive basement existence of scientists also negatively affects their social life. Although they have days off scientists tend to spend them alone. This is because scientists don’t have friends, though they do have wives. It was interesting that out of thirty children only two drew women scientists. All the other drawings showed men with crazy hair and big glasses. The scientist stereotype hasn’t disappeared.
This is perhaps not that surprising. These children might not be being taught about zombie Isaac Newtons in school but these ideas are coming from somewhere. Whether it’s TV, the internet or parents, there is an idea about science and who works in it that these kids are picking up on. Some of the kids in class 4K might be future scientists but others may have nothing to do with science past GCSE. Could the image of science they have as children ever affect how they think of science as adults?