Changing students’ minds about what it takes to be a scientist

Yesterday, this terrific Q+A post by Joseph Hanson came to my attention. He answered a poignant question from a reader who is interested in a career in research science but isn’tt sure if he can do it because of his less than perfect achievement on school science tasks such as tests and quizzes. As Joseph points out in his answer, this is a common worry. Dispelling it though is complicated because many aspects of school science don’t reflect laboratory and research science. School science can tend to reward memorizing, replication and conformity while research science is more about intense curiosity, and creative and innovative thinking. (This is of course a very broad generalization and there are many science teachers and science educators out there working very hard to create a science education that encourages and rewards students for engaging in challenging scientific inquiries). I was really impressed with Joseph’s candid answer to the question and with the follow-up discussion that happened on twitter. Several people responded with agreement that they had heard students say things like this and they themselves had held similar beliefs in the past.

In the “About” tab above I wrote that as a science teacher I was frustrated by the ways that students would talk themselves out of being part of science. I always remember one Grade 10 student in particular, Kara. She stayed after class one afternoon to help me clean up in the lab. As we were chatting. I complimented her on the great improvement I’d seen in her work in science and the really insightful comments that she had made in a recent discussion. She had good marks overall (~85% overall if I recall correctly), not the top in the class but certainly good, and to me she had shown real scientific curiosity creativity of thought. So I asked her which science courses she was planning to take the following year (in Grade 11 science courses were optional and students could choose between physics, chemistry and biology). Her response really surprised me – she laughed and responded with complete bemusement, “Who me? Oh no miss, you don’t understand. I’m not a science person.” What? Not a science person? Why not?

I asked her to tell me more: To her, science students were quiet, diligent students who always did all of their homework, wrote perfect neat lab reports and always got 100% on tests and quizzes. The next year, when I began graduate studies in science education, students like Kara were always on my mind. I wanted to know how and why students didn’t see themselves as the right type of people.

Over Twitter, I mentioned to Joseph that I have a paper coming out soon related to this idea. I’ll write about it some more when it is finally published (I just sent back the proofs so it should be out fairly soon) but his post got me thinking more about the ways that we can start to change students’ minds. In my study, I collected high school students opinions of the expectations that they face in school science – specifically what type of people they feel they need to be (how do they need to ask, what skills and attributes do they need to have). I used their responses to create a model of their perceived ideal and compared this to ideals in other subject areas to see if these fears are specific to science. For example, do students ask the same questions about being a historian or is getting 100% on all the tests and quizzes something that seems specifically important to science. Students presented a wide array of expectations, some that were clearly relevent to the practice of science and others, like quiz marks, that were really school expectations. One thing I was surprised to find is how common these perceptions are even when students go to different schools and have different teachers. There were small differences based on things that their teachers said and did, but overall most of the students had the same perceptions – meaning that challenging them is very very hard.

I wonder though about the potential value of comments like Joseph’s post to contribute to changing students’ perceptions. I’m sure I’m not the only one who would value responses like his to share with students.

So that’s what I’m asking. If you’ve read this and have had a similar experience, could you help me build a collection of stories to share with high school science students who are interested in science but not sure they have what it takes. Think about any answers that you could share that fit the following basic format:

“I used to think that to be a scientist you needed to __________ but now I know that __________.”

Thanks so much for any contributions that you are willing to share!


12 responses to “Changing students’ minds about what it takes to be a scientist”

  1. Here are some responses I have gotten over on Tumblr, maybe they will help:

    1) Hi, I’m writing in response to your response to the high school student concerned about his ability to be a scientist. I just wanted to tell you how happy I am to have read your answer. I am an organismal biology major and hope to go on to a masters in zoology or wildlife science. So far I have done well in biology and math (although I start calculus next term, so we’ll see…), but I just started the general chemistry sequence and I barely passed. Luckily I wasn’t the only one doing poorly and so the grade was curved, but it really made me start to wonder if I am cut out for science. The thing is, even if I failed chemistry, I am so enamored by the natural world that I don’t think it would deter me from pursuing my goals, your post sure made me feel better about it, though, so thanks!

    2) i am a girl, and i use to think the same way- that science just was not for me. however, back in eighth grade i had the most wonderful teacher who taught me that science is actually interesting and not just a really hard class. i’m out of high school now, and she is still the only teacher who taught science in a way that i could understand. because of a personal experience, i decided i wanted to be a nurse, because i love caring for people. i took a cna class and all my peers were talking about trying to get into a nursing school and how they had to have straight A’s and all that shit…right then i decided nursing was not for me, simply because i’m not a straight A student. however, i’m very intrigued by medical science and how the body works…specifically, i’m obsessed with naturopathic medicine. recently my chiropractor was talking to me about school and where i was going to transfer after i got my AA, and i told him i’m not sure. i’d love working as a naturopathic physician, but the thought of all that school, and studying, and science, was so intimidating! so i didn’t even research the steps i’d take to get there. anyways, he explained how it’s not intimidating at all, and convinced me that there’s no reason i should not follow my dreams because of a little school. sorry this is so long, but i just read the other person’s question about science and i kinda went through the same thing…it just takes a little push from someone encouraging telling you that you can do it!

    3) Loved what you wrote about science. I technically didn’t make it through high school but now I’m doing a PhD in environmental physics (I’m a girl)… believe me when I say that all I have needed is determination and hard work, and that the myth about geniuses with fantastic memories and perfect grades is all a lie. I got through my degree, my masters, and now I’m getting through my doctorate just by caring about what I do. I’ve met so many people in science just like me. Science is a fantastic career, rewarding and exhilarating, and I’d hate to see anyone turning away from what they wanted to do because of some silly myth of having to be some narrow stereotype. Science needs people with different skills and you discover your own strengths as you go along. Just wanted to say that…

  2. Enjoyed this post, looking forward to seeing the paper when it’s out!

    One of my ongoing concerns (as a university lecturer in Biology) relates to student perceptions of science. (Even those who opt to major in science often have distorted/unrealistic ideas of what science is … and I suspect that many university courses do not dispel these misconceptions!)

    I think it would be interesting to pose your question to students finishing a research practicum (a term of working in a lab in a fairly unstructured way), summer research position and/or research-based honours thesis.

    • That would be a very interesting way to ask the question. And I think you’re right, distorted perceptions can definitely be found among students who are interested in science as well. Research experiences and personal encounters with people doing science (like in an internship) would probably have a lot of impact.

  3. Guidance councilors are very important parts of the equation (Not a pun. Really!) that we need to remember. I needed one ay UVa and didn’t get it. Didn’t know I needed one… I was trying to be pre-med in 1976 & took “The Biology of the Algae”, thinking it’d help my Bio major, but was crushed by the rote memorization it required. Got an F. Dropped out of Uni as a result.
    Bad idea. Horriffic idea.
    Didn’t want to waste any more of my scary father’s money. If a guidance councilor had paid me a visit, it would have saved my life. Well, my future anyway. If I had realized they had an Astronomy Dept. there I would’ve changed my major & been much happier. Now I’m 60 years old & full of regrets.
    Again, guidance councilors are very important. Make sure your students know how to contact them. If any of your students have grades slip, even a little, talk to ’em and find out what their likes are and steer them that way. A mind really is a terrible thing to waste.

    • Thanks Richard – Informed counsellors, teachers and mentors are so important. I’ve met many people with similar experiences, who left science or university because they didn’t have the opportunity to find a fit for their interests and strengths.

  4. I have trouble with this question that goes through my head: “Am I smart or do I just pretend to be?”

    this question has haunted me for years. I am a sophomore girl in high school and i have always enjoyed the sciences. They intrigue me and they lead me to a passion in my mind. I enjoy very much to learn and research. However, I am not the best and brightest and never have been. Though I am in an honors program, I only am average. I strive to the best I can be, but I often doubt my own ability to do great.

    Right now I am looking to becoming a genetic engineer. Something brave and honorable. Something difficult and inspiring. This is what I have always dreamed of.

    How does one know that they have the ability to make it in the science world? How does one look past their own doubts- if they even doubt? What should I do to initiate my goal?

    I know these are very many questions, but I am curious. I have never had a teacher that has helped me to see how I can follow my dreams, Could you help me with this?

    • Melissa:
      You have your answer right there in your second sentence: “I have always enjoyed the sciences.” Follow your dream.

      Visit a genetics lab (At a university? A major hospital?) near you and find out as much as you can about what they do there. If you can, get an internship this summer (or Spring break?) in the lab. If not, then just hang around the lab until somebody asks you why you’re there. You are just the sort of person they need working there.

      If the first person you talk to does not seem helpful, then find another person to talk to. Don’t take “No.” as a correct answer. Get your school’s guidance counselor involved. Do these things this month. Don’t wait till next year even if a trusted authority figure tells you to. Doing an internship now will let you know what classes to take in your Junior year.

      Most of all, you ARE smart enough to be a scientist. Always remember that. Post another comment here when you have made a visit to a genetics lab near you so we know how you’re doing. If you can’t find a lab, post that as a comment and we’ll help find you one. OK?

      • Thank you so very much! I appreciate these kind and inspirational words. I will let you know when I find a lab.

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