Stereotypes in Science

For us who are interested enough to enrol in a science communication course, stereotypes in science is an age-old phenomenon that is “hard to accept”. Gender schemas are important for the development of children’s gender identity. However, children also often learn gender stereotypes from gender schemas. Children are greatly influenced by what they watch in the media and what they read in books. Take a look at this science comic strip from a highly popular children science magazine.

The scientist is alone. He wears the all familiar white lab coat. He works with sophisticated equipment. He is unkempt with facial hair and the list goes on.

On the other hand, where do we go from here in order to break away from this stereotype? A recent video commissioned by the EU to promote science to girls has only proven that such stereotypes are more deeply rooted than we can ever imagine. For friends who haven’t watched this video before, it can still be found in this link.

For every few steps made ahead in science communication, there will be one step that intervenes in another direction. Public awareness of science is an on-going process. With each intervention, we learn a little bit more about science and societal norms.

Science in the Olympics

While we watch in awe what the human spirit and mechanics can achieve, we often forget the science, or rather, the debate on science in the Olympics.

According to Nature News, anti-doping science is notoriously — some say unnecessarily — secretive. The drug-detection techniques and the “most sophisticated equipment” that was rolled out at the London games was not revealed till the beginning of the Games. (See link here.)

On the other hand, there are labs that develop drugs that are tweaked chemically to evade testing. Then, the anti-doping agencies set out to design tests to detect any form of drugs or proteins in that family, only for another to emerge. Nobody really knows what advantages different combinations of steroids, nutritional supplements and specialized diets can produce. Is it ethical to subject healthy people to the dosages and concoctions that athletes are likely to take? It does sound like a wild goose chase among scientists, often in the name of scientific development.

As such, there have been suggestions that medically supervised doping may be likely to be a better route. (See link here.)

What about surgical enhancement? Quoting a bioethicist at the University of the West of Scotland in Ayr: “Consider using skin grafts to increase webbing between fingers and toes to improve swimming capacity..” “These kinds of tweaks to our biology are likely ways that people would try to gain an edge over others.” I thought I see that only in the Harry Potter series?! So, as Gard says in his blog: “Enjoy it (sport) as it lasts.” (See link here.)

Communication Barriers

Last weekend, I visited the mobile exhibits set up at one of our shopping malls. It was an event organized in conjunction with the Singapore Science Festival. It was really a credible effort put up by the organizers in bringing science closer to the public. This time round, I visited the mobile exhibits with a different lens – that of a science communication student.

At our first booth, we were greeted by an enthusiastic young scientist who quickly, without much realization, sank into his jargon. His phrases which included “cathode”, “anode”, “electrons through the external circuit” caught my 10- and 13-years-olds by surprise. I politely interrupted him and asked how he could explain the science behind his exhibit in a language that my girls could appreciate. Pause… Deep thought… He tried again, using the same jargon as before… and before I realized it, I was the only one still listening to him, out of courtesy (of course)! My 2 girls had left. There was no chance to even ignite a spark in them! It was the same experience at another booth where a more senior investigator overwhelmed us with terminologies like “target DNA” and “primer”. My 10-year-old was busy fiddling with the set-up. Was she listening? Nope! Did she make any connection? I’m not too sure at all!

Then, I noticed sparks were ignited at one of the exhibits that had simple gadgets demonstrating concepts like resonance and static electricity. No jargon was used throughout the explanation. Teenagers couldn’t wait to try out the experiments. Parents couldn’t get their little ones to leave the exhibit. Amidst the action and noise, did they learn anything? I think they did because my 2 daughters unanimously voted this exhibit as their favourite and my elder one commented (on our way home): “That’s a cool way to demonstrate centripetal force.” Yup, I think she had made the connection.

TMartin places great emphasis in asking the question “Who is my audience?” before each of his outreach programmes. With his audience ranging from kindergarten kids to people in academia, he switches his language of presentation to captivate his audience, rather than keeping them captive!

Science Communicators Versus Science Teachers

Is science teaching congruent with science communication? Do they have the same ideals? What about the pathways that lead to the ideals?

Prof Bryant (2001) defined PAS as having “much broader, emotional and dispositional facets.” Personally, I feel that both science communication and science teaching involve emotional and dispositional facets. As teachers, we pay attention to our students’ attitudes towards the science issues that we cover in class. We, too, focus on role modelling the skills for accessing scientific knowledge. According to Dr Lamberts, “science communication focuses on how and why people appreciate and learn about S&T in everyday life.” I am sure many teachers try their best, within the limited time that they have, to engage their students on the ‘hows’ and the ‘whys’ in their daily classroom interaction. The PAST model suggested by Prof Stocklmayer emphasised the provision of analogous experiences and contextual experiences. I am sure many teachers also try to address misconception from prior knowledge, and provide meaningful analogies to help students make connections, if time permits.

By now, we see a common issue that we all face as teachers: TIME to cover the SYLLABUS (sigh!) to help students ace the ASSESSMENT. With this factor coming into play, the differences between science communication and science teaching surface as well. Unfortunately, in today’s highly competitive society, the outcome of education has become driven by a short term goal – ace your exams gives you a ticket to your dream school/college. While teachers understand the importance of ensuring accessibility of science, they also grapple with the increasing demands of assessments and societal expectations. Remember the law suit against Geelong Grammar School?

We don’t introduce our lessons with jargons but at some point, we have to “teach terminologies” and “scientific keywords” as required by the assessment criteria. Sadly, most assessments today still look like the deficit model. It measures how much one knows, or rather how much one doesn’t know.

The PAST model is an iterative process. The goal of science communication is long term. The public is driven by interest, curiosity and need to pursue free-choice learning of science beyond school.  To achieve life-long learning, it is an intricate interplay between formal education in schools and free choice learning beyond schools. After listening to Neil degrasse Tyson, I have been pondering whether I have been among the 80s or do I aspire to be among the 3s….

Raffles Museum Of Biodiversity Research Open House

I have always wanted to find an opportunity for my family to visit the Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research. When I chanced upon this Open House, there was no hesitation in registering for this rare learning opportunity! It’s a chance for me to learn and for my daughters, A and M, to get enthusiastic about the nature and biodiversity that co-exist in our concrete jungle.

We attended the “Animal Teeth Forensics” workshop and were amazed at the amount of information that can be gathered, just from teeth and skull structure.

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All belonging to carnivores: false gharial, crocodile and the tiger. Notice that the false gharial has a more pointed skull structure than the crocodile but both have monodont teeth. The tiger impresses us with its majestic canines which are used for tearing its prey. The immense jaws of the tiger tells us what a powerful predator it once had been.

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The false gharial

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The huge skull structure and the endless sharp, inward pointing monodont teeth belonging to the shark make it undoubtedly the king of the sea.

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The tiger, on the other hand, has a heterodont set of teeth structure. Being the king of the forest, even its premolars and molars are sharp, all built for the life of a predator!

Our next stop was the “All about Crabs” workshop, conducted by the ever passionate but knowledgable Miss Crabby!

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Miss Crabby took pain to introduce different species of crustacea to us – crab, lobster, prawn, crayfish. Just name it, she probably had introduced the specie to us.

I am most amazed by the coconut crab.

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It is able to wonder from ground to roof with ease. Look at the giant pincers. Imagine how it feels like to get pinched by one of these. There are people who
keep it as a pet!

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Finally, the children were given a crab specimen to observe, draw and name. Cool!

This is definitely a wonderful museum visit and it makes us all look forward to the opening of the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum in 2014! It’s high time we pay attention to educating our young the biodiversity that’s left amidst our environment. That’s the least we can do in our bid to preserve, study and protect what we have been blessed with. Thanks for this wonderful learning experience!

The science of “Ban Mian”

I was slurping my favorite hot “ban mian” in in my favorite coffee shop last night and found myself sweating, with mucus flowing down my nose as if I was having a cold. That’s my usual reaction whenever I slurp up my favorite “ban mian”. It feels kinda troublesome having to wipe away my sweat and mucus regularly, but the great taste and smell certainly make me feel good after eating it again and again!

“Why do you always end up like that, mom? Why does your ‘ban mian’ seem to be hot forever” My two daughters, A and M, chuckled and asked me this question. “Wow! Do I look so uncool?” I wondered to myself. Our conversations revolve around “ban mian” subsequently. I showed them the layer of oil on the “ban mian” soup and asked them to think about the role of the layer of oil in keeping the soup hot  for a long time. Yup, too much oil is not healthy, but it makes my soup hot and yummy! Eventually, A, the older one, was seen explaining the concept of “heat transfer” to her younger sister. “Oh, I see!” mumbled M, who examined her bowl of healthy chicken macaroni soup and seemed to nod in agreement. I supposed she had understood her sister’s point.

I have chosen to illustrate this point pictorially.
The receptors (Source: Britannica Online) in my olfactory system (Source: HowStuffWorks) trigger a chemical response that causes my sweat and mucus to flow involuntarily whenever I smell and taste “ban mian”. These are difficult scientific words that will require skills and perhaps, some trial and error to explain them well in simpler terms. A and M have seen my teaching materials for my workshop and seem to relate to the funny examples I intend to use in my workshop. This conversation leads me to think of the need to use simpler ways to explain technical terms to my young audience in my workshop. That’s the challenge of science communication.
James White from MIT has chosen to relate the idea of heat transfer by using his video found in the MIT-K12 video repository.
Whether it’s using “ban mian” as an illustration or using a video, there are both great ways of communicating science to students of various ages.