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Science and stereotypes

I’d like to start this post with a little thought exercise.

Close your eyes and picture a scientist. What is your scientist doing? What does your scientist look like?

If you are anything like my second graders, you’ve conjured up the stereotypical scientist: a man in a white lab coat with crazy hair who is tinkering with various chemicals and concoctions.

And if you’re a teacher like me, you are worried about how such stereotyped thinking limits your students’ visions of what they or other people can become and accomplish.

One of mt primary goals for my second graders in rural Maine is to become more aware of the world around them. As someone who is interested in social justice, I also aspire to have them recognize injustices and to envision a different world than the one we currently inhabit.

While my students and I discuss and analyze stereotypes throughout the year, I begin this work with one of our first science lessons. Prior to delving into our science curriculum, I ask my students to do just what I asked you to do at the beginning of this post: pause and picture what they think a scientist looks like and does. I then ask them to draw that image and then post it in a “scientist gallery.”

Once we have our gallery, we have a discussion about what we notice about our images — how they are similar to and how they might be different from one another. This leads into a conversation about how the stereotyped image of a scientist is, in fact, just one narrow version of what scientists actually do.

I follow this lesson in subsequent days by reading aloud different picture books about scientists in order to broaden my students’ thinking about what science really is and what scientists actually do. Two books in particular have proven particularly effective for achieving these objectives.

Me...Jane       on a beam of light

First, Me…Jane by Patrick McDonnell. This biography focuses on the childhood of Jane Goodall, the famous primatologist. My students are always captivated by this charming text and the parallels that they can draw between Jane’s early life and their own lives. We discuss whether Jane was always a scientist, or whether it was something she became when she grew up — a conversation that helps my students envision themselves as genuine scientists.

The second book, On a Beam of Light by Jennifer Byrne, illustrated by Vladimir Radunsky, is a biography of one of the most prolific scientists of all time, Albert Einstein. While Einstein arguably meets many of the criteria of the stereotyped scientist, this book does a fantastic job of tracing Einstein’s childhood and emphasizing that he was not born an incredible scientist, but rather honed his insights and made his discoveries by asking questions and doggedly pursuing them with insatiable curiosity. Like Me…Jane, this is a book that helps my students realize that everyone was once a child, just like them.

These quality books and our deconstruction of stereotypes of scientists help science work in my classroom get off to a solid start, with all of my students seeing themselves as capable of carrying out scientific inquiry about the world around them.

Nicole Hewes About Nicole Hewes

Nicole Hewes is currently serving as an impact manager at a public elementary school with City Year New Hampshire. She previously taught second grade in rural Maine for two years and received an M.Ed in language and literacy from the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

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Comments

  1. Two of my favorite nonfiction picture books!!

  2. Love those two books. I also love what Jon Scieszka has done for science this year with his new Frank Einstein series. Science has never looked cooler, funnier, and hipper!

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