“Someone who invents things.” “Someone who does experiments.” “A Hard worker.” ‘A man.” “Someone who delivers take-aways!” No this is not a précis of my curriculum vitae, but rather the response that I got when I recently asked the question, ‘Who is a scientist?’ to a group of primary school students. Apart from the notion that they are somehow moonlighting for Pizza Hut, these responses are characteristic of how many students view the modern scientist.
Through a series of demonstrations, experiments, and interactive assemblies a group of my colleagues and I have been trying to address this pigeonholing, helping to move primary school students in the Greater Manchester area away from preconceived stereotypes that all scientists are white males in white coats and glasses, who work in a laboratory. By changing these prejudiced notions of who scientists are, we hope to be able to encourage the students, even at this young age, to contemplate a career in science as an achievable and exciting pursuit; without this encouragement there is the very real danger that misguided stereotypes will deter many children from pursuing a career in research. The project will be judged a success if by the end of it we have managed to convince the students that scientists are real people, just like them.
Activities such as this also give the learners (and the educators) the chance to put questions to an expert. In a recent assembly that I gave to a primary school, there were so many questions that I had to stop taking them so that the children could finish school on time! The inquisitiveness (‘What is the hard evidence for the Big Bang?’ ‘If humans evolved from monkeys, then why are there still monkeys?’) and joy (‘What is your most dangerous invention?’ ‘How do I become a storm chaser’) of a child’s mind should never be underestimated; nor too should their cheekiness (‘How much do you get paid?’) or occasional delusion (‘Is it as much as a footballer?’).
As well as the positive effects to the educators and the learners that such school outreach activities bring, it is worth remembering that there are also numerous benefits to the scientific researchers themselves. As well as improving their communication, confidence, and networking abilities, such activities often serve as a reminder as to why they fell in love with their subject in the first instance.
“I believe the children are our future, teach them well and let them lead the way” Inspirational words to end this post with, but who said them? Richard Feynman, the American theoretical physicist and exceptional lecturer? John Keating, the fictional teacher from Dead Poets Society? Lyndon B. Johnson, former schoolteacher turned President of the United States? Well actually it was Whitney Houston, but it’s still a damn good line, and I’m sticking to it.