Who is the traditional right type of person for science?

Traditions in science education? At first that might seem like a strange way to think about science in schools. The word ‘tradition’ often conjures images of formal traditions: holiday dinners, Christmas carols, festivus poles, and wedding ceremonies. But that’s not the only kind. As Greg Laden wrote recently, traditions are also those things that we take for granted, those practices and ways of thinking that we explain by saying “it’s just always been that way”.  Science education doesn’t really have formal traditions (there’s no commemorative long weekend as far as I know) but it definitely has this kind of more embedded tradition.

One of the things I research in schools is how students decide that they want to continue to study science, either in senior high school or university. As I wrote over on my “About” page, when I used to encourage Grade 10 students to consider taking optional science courses in Grade 11 and 12 there were talented and interested students who would say things like “Oh no, not me Miss, I’m not really a science person?” I’m always drawn to remembering one student in particular, because I thought she would make a wonderful science student and maybe scientist or science teacher one day. She was curious, outspoken, creative in her scientific thinking and when she found a question interesting she would pursue it endlessly until she was satisfied. I spent many lunch hours bantering with her about different questions on everything from climate change to DNA replication. I was shocked that she was one of the students who thought she wasn’t the right type of person to do science.

So what does that mean? Who is the right type of person to do science? The answer to that question is a perfect example of something that is tradition in science education. The descriptions that students offer and use as the basis for their decisions often doesn’t match the qualities that are really needed to be a scientist but they are the qualities that “everyone” seems to use to describe and depict science students.

As part of a study published this year, I went met with 95 students at three different Ontario high schools (one urban, one suburban and one rural) and asked them to tell me about what it means to be the right type of person to be a science student. All of the students wrote descriptions for me and then I interviewed 33 to ask them more about what they’d written.

Some of their answers came as no surprise. They recognized important qualities like being curious, relying on evidence, practicing critical thinking and being skilled in experiments. “The most important expectation of a science student is to have a desire to know why the world is the way it is,” wrote one girl. Another explained, “A science student is likely to be someone who wants to expand their understanding of the world around them.” A boy at the urban high school wrote that “A science student is more concerned with concrete evidence than opinions (unless they are supported through legitimate evidence)” and his classmate explained that science students are expected “to be organized in their thinking and with a sense of critical reasoning.”

Others, however, were more surprising and less connected to the actual practices of science. One of the most common themes was that science students need to be intelligent. “They’re probably smart in science. And then I guess that they’re probably just really smart in general about like everything.”  That in itself wasn’t unexpected. What was unexpected was the way students defined scientific intelligence. Many students extended definition to say that because science students are so smart they shouldn’t ever have to ask for help or further explanations. One student said in her interview that real science students “understand all concepts and go above and beyond knowledge expectations. They do not require explanation.” Another student, who didn’t see herself as a science student despite having good marks, told me that she based her assessment mostly on the fact that she asks the teacher a lot of questions to make sure she understands. “Real science students shouldn’t have to do that”, she said. This seems in some ways antithetical to science. Isn’t asking questions and pushing until you understand one of the defining characteristics of scientific scholarship? Some students went as far as to say that real science students don’t need to participate in science class because they should know the right answers already.

Students seemed to base their judgments about themselves as science people on a perception that science is always rule bound. There are right answers and wrong answers, rules to follow and little room for creativity. To be the right type of person to do science, the students said that you needed to someone who fits in with the school rules. “A science student is less likely to be expected to be rude to the teacher when he/she is talking or to disrupt the class,” one boy wrote. “They aren’t expected to be messy or rebellious” said another. It isn’t hard though to think of scientists who wouldn’t come close to meeting these particular expectations.

Not only were school rules important, science itself was seen as a set of rules. One student explained, “When people take science they think of like strict rules that can’t be broken or anything. There’s laws to science, like conservation of energy, conservation of mass. So it’s like set down rules that you have to follow. If you don’t follow them you’re going to end up doing something weird or wrong. I guess people expect you to follow a set of rules that are set down for you, guidelines so that nothing out of the ordinary happens, nothing really weird or odd happens. Creativity is a part of it but it seems to me that there’s more rules to follow than room for creativity.” And while he and others recognized that science might be somewhat creative, some students were more equivocal. “They aren’t expected to be creative and design-aware. Creativity is unnecessary and artistic representations aren’t necessary. Expressive work is uncommon and not the ‘typical’ criterion for a science student” explained a girl from the suburban school. This is despite recognition from scientists and science educators that creativity and even sometimes rebellion and subjectivity are essential to science. Physicist Lisa Randall, in a recent interview on CBC Radio’s Quirks and Quarks, made a strong argument not only for the importance of creativity in science but also for the connections and similarities between scientific creativity and artistic creativity.

After talking to these students and reading what they had written, I was interested to see how much these perceptions varied across classes and schools. I wondered if some of the surprising ones were coming from particular teachers or schools so I created a questionnaire using the students’ ideas. It asked questions that compared the expectations associated with being the right type of person to do science with other subjects, specifically in the areas of intelligence (in the way the students defined it), scientific mindedness (critical thinking, logic and rational thinking), scientific skills (such as designing and interpreting experiments), creativity and appropriate classroom behavior. I went to three different high schools and collected questionnaires from 157 more Grade 10 students.

Were there any surprises? Yes and no. The students’ answers showed that all of the major expectations, except creativity, were either unique to science or extra important in comparison to other subjects. These new students confirmed what the others had said in their interviews and writing that there are clear expectations about what it means to be the right type of person to do science. The most surprising thing was how consistent they were. Across schools, classes, teachers and even gender there weren’t any significant differences in the expectations that students described. All of the students described the right type of science student in roughly the same way, even though some parts of that description are either unnecessary (e.g., never being rude) or even conflict with the actual qualities that make a good scientist (e.g., sticking only to established ideas).

How can that be? These students lived hours apart, went to very different schools (an inner-city public school, a suburban private school and a rural technical high school) and had very different teachers. Some had experienced teachers providing outstanding and open-ended learning experiences for their students. Other had teachers with little experience teaching science who clung to the course notes and textbooks. Some had enthusiastic new teachers trying out ideas and just beginning to find their own style of science teaching. It seemed so unlikely to me that the students in their classes would all agree on what it takes to be the right type of science student and that it would include misunderstandings even in classes where I know that the teacher encouraged questioning and creative thought.

It happens because these are science education traditions. They are embedded in the way that we talk about school science, the way school science looks on tv and in movies, the way parents remember school science and in the legends that older brothers, sisters and cousins tell kids. It’s also embedded in the basic practices of school science. Even when individual teachers do innovative and inspiring things, these ideas are still embedded in lab practices, such as the “right answer” style lab reports, and importantly in the ways that students are assessed (something teachers don’t always have control over). These traditions have serious consequences, such as excluding students who otherwise have the making of future scientists or convincing others that just because they are not future scientists they can’t also be a science person just by being interested in science, but because they are traditions they are very very difficult to change.

This post was inspired by discussions that I had with Desiree Schell and Greg Laden as we prepared for a panel discussion on the radio program Skeptically Speaking. The panel explored topics related to culture and tradition from different perspectives and featured biological anthropologist Greg Laden, primatologist Eric Micheal Johnson, and me. Desiree is the host of Skpetically Speaking and guided us with thought-provoking questions. A podcast of the show will be available on Friday, November 25 at Skeptically Speaking Episode #139: Culture and Tradition

Greg also wrote a great post about traditions in science education (I love the introduction!) after our first conversation.

And rounding out a very cool week of discussing these issues, Josh Rosenau who works for the National Center for Science Education wrote a very interesting post about how to move forward with change and reform in science education.

The study described here was published as:

Shanahan, M.-C., & Nieswandt, M. (2011). Science student role: Evidence of social structural norms specific to school science Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 48 (4), 367-395 DOI: 10.1002/tea.20406



18 responses to “Who is the traditional right type of person for science?”

  1. I wonder if part of the reason students felt that science students should “already know the answer” is because the expectation is that science students are nerdy and study on their own. I know from my own experience that I found my AP (advanced placement in the US) biology teacher went woefully slow. I was obnoxious and awful to her because I was bored out of my skull in the class that seemed to move at a glacial pace. I would goof off and interrupt during class and just study on my own, so I’m in part surprised there wasn’t much variance across quality of science curriculum. I wonder why the expectation was science students “already know” the answer exists. Now as a post-doc I understand that the skill of teaching myself the answers to questions where ever my mind wanders is perhaps the single most important skill I possessed as a graduate student. I certainly don’t shy away from asking questions if I need them. Yet I’d bet that’s not why most highschool students maintain said expectation. Regarding the “right” answer component, I’d say that is very pervasive at the university level as well. My intro biology students come in and if an experiment goes “wrong” they ask if they should write their labs as if the results were as “expected”. The best labs I like to do are ones that I’ve never done before and who knows how the results come out. Of course there are rules in science that you need to follow like the scientific method, but nothing beyond that and its a shame students aren’t taught the distinction between the philosophy of science and its practice. Its totally lost on most of my students that as long as an experiment is carried out properly, you’re always learning something, the right answer is the one you get, thats the beauty of well crafted experiments.

    • Thanks Edmond – I’ve had many similar experiences too and as you say, it persists at the undergraduate level too. I remember doing the same thing as your intro bio students in my engineer labs. One small note though, it wasn’t the quality of the curriculum that was consistent. I did observe many differences in quality, style and pace of teaching. The surprising thing was that even with those differences, students held much the same perceptions of what it meant to be science student.

  2. […] Last night I was up too late (again), nursing a too-busy brain with a good dose of Internet, when the Twitterverse led me to an post by Marie-Claire Shanahan on the blog Boundary Vision, entitled, “Who is the traditional right type of person for science?” […]

  3. Really interesting post. I was very much struck by children’s false expectations of scientists when I took part in an online competition last year that enabled school-children inthe UK to ask questions of working scientists. The kids seemed to think of us as super intelligent beings, all on the cusp of winning a Nobel prize.

    To counteract that view, I made a film by interviewing six different scientists, to try to show that we are often pretty ordinary folk: http://imascientist-film.org.uk/

  4. It’d be interesting to see what sort of international variations there are in this research, and trace back where specific traditions and expectations arise (or even disappear) over time.

    One of our own programs – Scientists in Schools – is an attempt to address this perception of what scientists are by personally getting the students acquainted with a ‘real’ scientist, which has been getting great results.

    Personally, I’m concerned by the message we push that science is defined as something people do with their lives. The converse of it suggests that it is also something people don’t do, therefore it’s insignificant to them. There is a strong desire to define science by way of a profession or occupation, which means those students who don’t see themselves on a path to a scientific career can excuse themselves from engaging with science.

    • Thanks Tribalscientist, there are some really great programs out there working to change students’ perceptions.
      For international variations, there have been similar studies done in the UK and the US mostly with similar results. Beyond that there hasn’t been much comparative work done yet. I hope research continues to expand in that direction. And you make a good suggestion, it would be very interesting to try to mine other data sources to trace these traditions through time. Perhaps a good future study idea!
      You’re right I think to point out that being interested and involved in science isn’t something exclusive to those who do it professionally too. That was part of the rationale for asking specifically about traditions related to being a science student. As these students defined it, being a science student is related to wanting a career in science but the two are not necessarily synonymous.

  5. A former colleague and I tried to identify traits correlated with “scientist”. A the time, we thought a checklist might be devised for predictive purposes. We created a tool but did not test its reliability/validity. However, there was a tremendous demand for such a checklist among educators, including science professors at the college and university levels.
    Blog: http://vertebratesocialbehavior.blogspot.com
    Twitter: http://twitter.com/cbjones1943

  6. We had “personality” tests to help direct our choice of classes and career where I went to high school in the US, and I always came out “artist” – I’m a Genetics PhD now. The creativity in science is underappreciated by guidance counselling I think, and your study shows by students too. Artistic people can love science and thrive there, and many of my medical colleagues are musicians or artists outside of work. Thank you for this study, it shines a light on how the current stereotyping in school.

    • Thanks J.J., I appreciate that. Creativity is definitely one of the qualities that most often gets left out. In the past, I’ve worked on some teaching materials to encourage creative thinking and expression in science. It’s something I’d like to come back to.
      P.S. Mine always came back saying “actuary” which makes me laugh a little. While I do love statistical analysis, my guidance counselors never seemed to appreciate the strength of my desire to at least occasionally get make slime with kids as part of my job 😉

  7. This whole issue hits very close to home with me, since I decided not to pursue science as a major decades ago because I kept getting the message that I wasn’t the right type of person to be a scientist. Being female was the biggest problem and being mixed-race didn’t help, but I didn’t strike anyone as being intelligent because I had slow reflexes and uncorrected vision problems. A scientist, I gathered, was someone who was brilliant and impressive, and back then intelligence was considered a function of neurological health. I got good grades and test scores, but that didn’t make any difference.

    I eventually went into computer science and became a programmer working with engineers, laboratory scientists and finally physicians and statisticians. I learned a lot about how scientists think and after retirement went back to school at a community college and took eight science courses to find out what I’d been missing. I really enjoyed it because I’d gotten in the habit of reviewing clinical research papers critically from the standpoint of a statistician, and found many wanting, mostly because of these reasons: 1) unnecessary data reduction, usually conversion of a continuous variable to a discrete one, using arbitrary cutpoints, attributing special significance to those cutpoints in the conclusions, 2) failure to report p-values of statistical comparisons of baseline variables when presenting the quality of randomizations in clinical trials, 3) failure to use interaction variables to compensate for correlations among independent variables, and thereby jumping to conclusions about causal relationships among variables, 4) effectively assuming surrogate variables were the same as those they stood in for, and so on. I enjoyed writing papers, sometimes taking the liberty to critique a line of scientific research related to the assigned topic instead of presenting the superficial summary that the instructor requested.

    But to my surprise, I got very much the same reaction from my instructors in one-on-one interactions that I’d experienced in high school. They didn’t want to talk with me about these thorny scientific issues; they preferred to spend their time with whom they felt to be their truly bright students. My A’s didn’t impress them; in fact, several suspected me of cheating because … I just wasn’t the scientific type!

    I finally had to conclude that the students deemed fit for scientific careers came from privileged backgrounds. They were in perfect health, tended to have long, straight legs and even teeth, sparkling eyes and rapid-firing nervous systems. They were used to being told they were smart by attentive parents. And they were nearly all white. And these probably are very reliable surrogate variables, not the least because of expectations. But was this good science?

    • Thank you so much for your comment Dorothy, illustrating exactly how troubling expectations about the right type of person can be. And you are absolutely right that they can extend well beyond the expectations I’ve talked about here and involve judgements about age, class, race, appearance and more. I am also so sorry to hear that you had that experience. I usually spend my summers teaching a research methods course and trying to encourage students to ask the type of statistical questions you’ve raised. Being a critical thinker sounds like exactly the right type of person to me!

  8. Thank you so much for bringing this issue forward, Dr. Shanahan. You have opened a big can of worms, I’m afraid! The “stupid” vs. “naive” question issue is an important one, and I remember asking questions that got strange responses, e.g., “Could do different people have the same DNA as determined from electrophoresis, considering the simplicity (few categories) of the analysis results?” My instructor quickly changed the subject, looking annoyed.

    I appreciate your encouragement, and it gives me hope that the difficulties I’ve faced where I live might have been due to the peculiarities of the local culture. I hope that you and others in your field continue to study the messages science teachers give their students, not just by how they teach them to reason but by demonstrating their ability to reason objectively and patiently in their daily activities.

    This reminds me of a local murder case, i.e., Michael Peterson’s hearing to get an appeal, in which the methods of an SBI agent, Duane Deaver, were critically reviewed for prosecutorial bias. Deaver’s responsibility, in essence, was to perform a kind of scientific investigation. His was generally a very unstructured job, one that required a lot of difficult judgment calls. One thing that struck me about Deaver’s approach was its apparent lack of validation measures. Never did Deaver seem to ask himself, “How can I be sure that this conclusion is true? What approach should I use to determine this?” He seemed to be thinking more like a lawyer, seeing himself as the prosecutor’s assistant. I wish when I’d been a student that a teacher had put forth a case like that to teach us general principles of investigation. Here’s a link to the latest article covering this case: http://www.newsobserver.com/2011/12/13/1708502/expert-sbi-agents-bloodstain-analysis.html

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