Role modeling through personal stories isn’t as easy as it sounds

I got very brave a few weeks ago and participated in a storytelling event as part of Science Online 2012, an annual science communication conference held in North Carolina. Instead of the usual guest speakers and awards ceremonies that haunt most conference banquets, this was a partnership with The Monti that brought members of our own online science community together to share intimate and often funny parts of their lives. It was a nod to the spirit of the conference, which encourages open sessions and audience contributions over slide presentations and lectures. That’s why it’s my favourite conference of the year, and it works because it’s a conference filled with fascinating people: science writers, researchers, bloggers, artists, programmers, physicians, teachers, and librarians all interested in science in the online world.

My own story included several important narrative elements (excited kids, model rockets, Diet Coke, a northern adventure and an upset grandmother) but it was one of several. The other stories were hilarious, touching, thought-provoking and heart breaking, with appearances made by pubic lice and depression, orangutans and pink microscopes. There were name mix-ups and college kids seeing double. Mostly there were people being people, and it was a brilliant thing to be a part of.

Since Science Online ended, there have been ongoing discussions about the importance of highlighting the people who do science. In response, there have been a series of touching blog posts inspired by the slogan and hashtag “I am Science” and a Tumblr blog proclaiming This is What a Scientist Looks Like. Scientists and writers have shared the personal,  individual, and often difficult roads they’ve taken to a scientific life. These stories are intended to provide role models and inspiration.

These posts got me thinking though because the act of role modeling in science is a complicated one. The evidence is not entirely clear on how much it can actually contribute to changing people’s perceptions and participation in science[i] [ii] especially when compared to more direct  encouragement from teachers, parents and peers. There is some evidence though that when non-traditional science students have the opportunity to interact with people who are like them (for example, role models of the same gender and race) and who break relevant stereotypes[iii], it does seem to contradict stereotypical thinking about themselves. This improvement seems stronger the more closely that students, for example, can relate to the role models. [iv]From that perspective, the “I am Science” stories have something to offer. While role models presented in writing (e.g., through biographies) or photos aren’t nearly as effective as the ones that we know in person (Stout et al.), the contributors have been a wide ranging group, with interesting stories to tell. There is a good chance that many different students and junior members of the scientific community can find relatable models in those stories. That can be difficult to replicate in person.

There is a second piece to the role modeling puzzle though: future self. A student or other junior community member presented with a potential role model not only needs to be able to identify with the characteristics of the role model but he needs to also be able to see himself achieving the same success in the future. This is the part that can be challenging. The more perfect and successful the role model is,  the harder it is to make a connection to them even if all of the other pieces fit[v]. Real personal doubts can make it easy to dismiss potential models as special: “I could never do that. Even though he comes from the same neighbourhood and background, he’s obviously smarter/better/luckier/more hard working. Role models that seem too successful or too perfect are difficult to relate to even if they’ve taken a difficult road to reach their success.

That’s why I loved the Monti stories so much as part of the landscape of telling stories of the people of science. Each one included mistakes, bad decisions and genuine human weaknesses along with strengths and perseverance. The humanity shown in the stories is part of showing future selves that are attainable. We all still make mistakes, we all still do things without evaluating our assumptions (as was a key part in my story). I was really proud to be a part of something that was not only fun and entertaining but that contributes to the on-going project of providing different models for who participates in science and how. And I thought it was important to emphasize that the story of being in science doesn’t have to be just an origin story. Our stories are ongoing.

You can listen to all of the terrific stories told by Chris Gunter, David Ng, Janet Stemwedel, Scott Huler, Bug Girl, Ben Lillie and me at The Monti.

[i] Hazari, Z., Sadler, P. M., Sonnert, G., & Shanahan, M.-C. (2010). Connecting high school physics experiences, outcome expectations, physics identity, and physics career choice: A gender study. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 47, 978–1003. doi: 10.1002/tea.20363

[ii] Gilmartin, S., Denson, N., Li, E., Bryant, A., & Aschbacher, P. (2007). Gender ratios in high school science departments: The effect of percent female faculty on multiple dimensions of students’ science identities. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 44, 980–1009. doi: 10.1002/tea.20179

[iii]    Cheryan, S., Siy, J.O., Vichayapai, M., Drury, B.J., & Kim, S. (2011). Do female and male role models who embody STEM stereotypes hinder women’s anticipated success in STEM? Social Psychological and Personality Science2, 656-664. doi: 10.1177/1948550611405218

[iv] Stout, J. G.-,Dasgupta, N., Hunsinger, M., McManus, M. A., (2011). STEMing the tide: Using ingroup experts to inoculate women’s self-concept in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 100, 255-270. doi: 10.1037/a0021385

[v] Buck, G. A., Clark, V. L. P., Leslie-Pelecky, D., Lu, Y. and Cerda-Lizarraga, P. (2008), Examining the cognitive processes used by adolescent girls and women scientists in identifying science role models: A feminist approach. Science Education, 92: 688–707. doi: 10.1002/sce.20257


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