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.

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….