Monday, 26 September 2011

Drawings Of Scientists

I am teaching, for the second year running, the BTEC Level 3 unit "Perceptions of Science". We kick off with what a scientific theory is, and I beat them soundly over the head with Karl Popper and Thomas Kuhn. We had an interesting chat at the start of the lesson about the CERN neutrinos and what it was that scientists were trying to achieve by releasing the story and data prior to publication (and whether this was going to follow Popper's or Kuhn's ideas about how science works).

Now we've moved on to science and the media, and I'll be showing them various clips and programmes, including Brian Cox's 2010 Huw Wheldon lecture and "Mad and Bad: 60 Years of Science on TV". But I thought I'd start off with the good old Fermilab Drawings of Scientists game.

I got the students into groups to do this, and was delighted with the results. Now, I have had conversations with some rather smug, sanctimonious types (the sort who don't really like talking to anyone who isn't either a scientist or important), who think that there is no merit in this whatsoever. Still, I persevered. And the students noticed that their scientist drawings all contained:
  • Glasses/goggles
  • Wild hair
  • Beards
  • Labcoats
  • Test tubes or other "typical" lab kit
And that's all rather expected. They are, in some ways, choosing avatars of scientists - representatives of entities recognisable as scientists. Whether that is the fault of the old Frankenstein movies, or dodgy Open University shows from the 1970s is perhaps up for debate. We were able to discuss the clothes that scientists actually wear, and that labcoats are really only appropriate for a very small number of scientific disciplines (I like showing them photos of palaeontologists wearing labcoats, overalls, hiking boots, jeans and t-shirts, and even medical scrubs for aspects of their work).

What they didn't pick up on was that all the scientists they had drawn were male. And the girls in the group were in full indignant feminist rant mode, when I also pointed out to them that, for such a diverse group of students, they'd all rather stuck with white scientists. They were horrified. One student asked for his group's poster back so he could shade the skin. I was pleased with the reaction - I simply noted for them that it seemed a shame that, for all that they were achieving in the college, they still had an idea of scientists as not necessarily being people like them.

I think they'll have mulled over this tonight. And while students still have this reaction, then I still see merit in the exercise, whatever certain scientists think.

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