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Drawing Scientists & Drawing Conclusions about Who Can. Girls and Science in Primary School November 15, 2011

Posted by kyliev in Gender differences?, girls in science, STEM pipeline efforts.
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The “Draw A Scientist Test” is a technique to test elementary school students’ notions of who scientists are. As the title suggests, students are simply asked to draw a scientist. The results are almost always the same: children envision scientists as men, grey haired, white, and wearing glasses. Some studies note that the drawings tend to be of particularly ugly men. When asked to draw a teacher, the drawings are almost all of women, and women who tend to be particularly more attractive than the scientists.

Old, white, and scary: a scientist in the eyes of elementary schoolers

By the time that girls are in elementary, their ideas of who is and is not a scientist are already formed.  They may feel that they are not meant to be scientists, or that science is not meant for them. In one study, two classes of students were given the same science test. In one class, the teacher told the students that usually girls don’t do well on this test. When the test scores came back, the girls indeed did significantly worse than the boys. In the other class, the teacher made no such claim. In this class, the difference between boys’ and girls’ scores was only marginal.  When confronted with the stereotype, girls conformed to it. Otherwise, they performed just as well. This is what is called the stereotype threat.

In one class, the teacher told the students that usually girls don’t do well on this test. When the test scores came back, the girls indeed did significantly worse than the boys.

While the solution in this case may be to just stop telling girls that they are bad at science, in reality it is not so simple. Implicit social cues can contribute more to girls’ lack of confidence in STEM subjects than explicit ones. One study tested the effect of female teachers’ confidence with their own math skills on the confidence and performance of their students. In classes with more anxious math teachers, girls were more likely to agree with the stereotype that girls are not as good at boys at math. Girls who endorsed the stereotype performed significantly worse than did boys overall and girls who did not endorse the stereotype.

SCFG campers build a see-saw out of K'nex

Parents as well as teachers can affect their children’s relationships with science. The daughters of parents who encourage them to pursue interests in science are more likely to have confidence in those subjects than other children. The children of mothers who talk to their children about science tend to view the scientific abilities of boys and girls more equally than other children.  Both at school and at home female role models shape the way students view science and women. When their interest and abilities are encouraged, girls are more ready to challenge the stereotype, perform better in math and sciences, and have confidence that they can do so.

Between elementary and middle school, girls’ interest in science drops dramatically. Not only do many girls think that they are bad at science, but they are not interested in it. They view science as something that is done in a lab, in solitude, without direct consequence in the daily lives of people. When science is presented as “tangible” and applicable to everyday life, girls’ interest is piqued. Hands-on science experiments that use household materials, investigating the chemistry of tie-dye, and learning the physics of soccer can draw in girls who otherwise would not relate to science.

Check out Discovery KidsGirlStart or our Try This At Home page for science games and activities for girls, and boys!

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