I was recently introduced to the Who’s the Scientist website by a tweet from Bec Schepers. The site has comments about and drawings of scientists by students in year 7 before and after a visit to Fermilab, a high energy physics facility near Chicago. The comments and drawings before sum up young people’s perception of scientists wonderfully: lab coats, nerdy, socially awkward.
The drawings and comments after the visit are dramatically different. Scientists are normal people: we like the same things that everyone else likes! We even play racquetball! And most importantly, we care about the world around us. The kids realised that scientists are human and science is a human endeavour. Everyone is curious about the Universe: scientists are just lucky enough to investigate parts of it as a job.
It reminded me that perception is an enormous barrier to getting kids (and the public) interested in science. I came across a similar thing during I’m a Scientist, Get me out of here! – before going in the students all thought we would be geeky with no life outside of science and no social skills. I think that this stereotype has come from a few high profile exceptions, and that many of those are from a different era.
Somewhere along the line people have picked up the impression we’re all mad scientists or awkward men with thick glasses and lab coats. Hollywood has a lot to answer for! Happily though, things are in our power to change.
So what’s the best way to change the perception of us as scientists? Let them see us at work! Open days and school visits to labs and observatories give people a great feeling for what we do. If people meet us and see how normal we are, perhaps they won’t be so nervous or untrusting of science and scientists.
My workplace is an office, just like a lot of people’s. We have labs, but so do many hospitals; we have workshops, but so does a mechanic. We have families, play and follow sports, listen to music, love good food. Part of encouraging kids into science has to be letting them know this!
Finally, we also need to take public outreach seriously, by getting out there and telling people not just about our science, but about ourselves. Exposure and interaction to anyone viewed as “different” will almost always remove prejudices after all.