Selling Scientists

In a previous incarnation, I was involved with gender equity research in science education. You can see examples like this:

Scantlebury, K., Green, N., & Kahle, J. B. (1989, July). Teacher as researcher: A case study of collaborative research. National Coalition of Sex Equity in Education, Lowell, MA.
or this
Scantlebury, K., Green, N., & Kahle, J. B. (1989, July). Developing science skills. National Coalition of Sex Equity in Education, Lowell, MA.

I am afraid they were published well before the nifty development of web based publications, so they are unfortunately not easily accessed. I also did reviews and studies of science text books for most of the major US textbook publishers, checking for gender equity in the representation of scientists in the book illustrations. There were a lot of studies that showed that if students saw pictures of people who they could identify with, they more easily conceptualized themselves as scientists. In the same manner, if the pictures showed female scientists as well as male then the female students has an easier time visualizing themselves as scientists.

It all makes good sense. We want to make sure that we are not isolating any potential group of science or engineering students from being able to dream of this career. Regardless of sex, race or religious persuasion, anyone is capable of being a scientist if that moves them. The critical years are late elementary school and middle school, with continuing support through high school. This is especially true for girls, who drop out of math and science as electives in droves about halfway through middle school.

What triggered all of this ancient history?? I was watching this Nova Vodcast profile of Karl Iagnemma, who is a scientist and a writer. Karl is an amazing, intense, hard working human. And all those years of work an research came flooding back to me. Here is the dilemma. At about 6th grade, hormones and neural re-routing take over in humans that shift their priorities and focus. Peer groupings and acceptance become one of the single largest factors in their decision making process. No matter how much support structure they have at home, it is a rare teen who will ignore their peers at age 12 and pursue their passions. Yes, It does happen. Yes, you probably have a story of someone like that. I do too. But not the majority. Not at the percentage that we are aiming for if we want to continue developing enough scientists and engineers to grow our technology driven dreams.

So, we attempt to make science “cool”. We have the Mythbusters and rock star scientists. We try to make it look like lots of fun and infuse science with prestige. This works for a while, then students still drop out.

The truth is, science DOES take hard work. It does take incredible drive and focus. To be perfectly honest, the people who are wildly successful really ARE a little bit odd when compared to the rest of the population. You have to have focus for long periods of time. You spend lots of time thinking-alone.. or observing- alone. Then you think a bunch more. Maybe there are equations involved, or test tubes or baby mice. But there are not giggling groups of friends in the long long hours. This is not a bad kind of weird-if you are an adult. But at 13 or 14, any kind of weird is difficult. Passions that drive you to spend time alone are anathema.

So. At what point do we admit as society that it takes a special and wonderful kind of person to be a researcher or a creative engineer, and not everyone is cut out for this. Maybe we will never push the percentage of science majors above a certain percentage becuase there are just not that many people interested in that lifestyle.

Is this bad? Should we try to change or alter something about the nature of research or how reearchers behave to create more scientists? Should we be facing the fact that our scientist population will always be limited and start to prioritize what we work on rather than whine about not having enough scientists? Or is there still an untapped group of scientists that I am overlooking?

One thought on “Selling Scientists

  1. I don’t have answers for you, but I actually have a BS in Environmental Science that I don’t use. Breaking into the interesting jobs is really hard because there are so few and I discovered after a year and a half of lab work that I really wasn’t suited to it. It does take a particular type of person to do well in science, at least the dues paying part until you can make it what you want. Not everyone can be a Mythbuster, although Mythbusters rocks!

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