Scientist Stereotypes Eroding Among Students

Although a small majority of students still hold stereotypical views of scientists, many students have a growing awareness that anyone can be a scientist, according to science educators participating in an informal NSTA Reports poll. Fifty-five percent said their students see scientists as most likely to be white males. However, when asked to compare the prevalence of this belief to that of 10 years ago, 60% said more students are aware that scientists can come from any demographic group. But students don’t always connect those opportunities with their own demographic group, according to 25% of respondents.
 Half of respondents noted that minority and/or female students pursuing advanced or elective science courses in their school or district were underrepresented compared to overall enrollment, while 37.5% said the percentage of minority and/or female students taking these courses correlated to overall enrollment. Only 12.5% said a higher percentage of minority and/or female students take advanced or elective science courses compared to overall enrollment.
More than half (59%) reported their school or district did not offer programs targeted toward increasing the diversity of the students in science programs. Most (82.5%) said they incorporate lessons or use other teaching materials that encourage students of color and/or girls to study science and pursue science careers.

Here’s what science teachers are saying about how they encourage students of color and/or girls to study science and pursue science careers:

[We practice] [s]tudent-driven, research- based learning [in which] the dreams of the student are allowed to be explored and achieved.—Educator, High School, Washington
All of my lessons are for everyone in every demographic. They should all be able to do all lessons no matter their gender, race, or nationality.—Educator, Middle School, High School, Minnesota
[One example is l]earning about Rosalind Franklin.—Educator, Middle School, Kansas
Teenage girls still feel pressure to identify as being squeamish about invertebrates and bodily fluids.—Educator, High School, New York
I don’t really have specific lessons. I am constantly talking about women and people of color in science throughout the year.—Educator, High School, Minnesota
[We expose students to] SciGirls at [third- through fifth-grade] level. —Educator, Elementary, New York
[It’s] important to consider what we explicitly teach, implicitly teach, and what we teach by omission, particularly when thinking about how to encourage girls to see themselves as scientists. —Educator, High School, Colorado
[I] preview instructional materials to [ensure they] show diversity. —Administrator, High School, Nevada
I desire to break the gender and racial stereotypes by asking my students often about gender and racial roles. —Educator, Elementary, Minnesota
I teach second grade. We have a Super Scientists and Inventors board in the classroom, and each week, I introduce a new person. I have picture cards that [I] put up on the board, along with picture cards with information on the back of them [that I place] in a center for them to write about them and how they impact their lives right now.—Educator, Elementary, Minnesota
[I] push all students equally.—Educator, High School, Minnesota
We use resource books that include multiple perspectives. We are also trying a biography unit [in which] students of color can read about scientists like themselves.—Educator, Middle School, Minnesota
[My class] did a study on women astronauts.— Educator, Elementary, Oklahoma
[I use v]aried [resources], e.g., NASA’s Modern Figures.—Educator, Institution of Higher Learning, North Carolina
All students are treated equally, and an even cross-section [is] invited to attend outside programs.—Educator, High School, Connecticut
Women [s]cientists’ biographies; science articles; current scientists of color; and especially women of all ethnicities’ work is integrated into lessons [and] daily discussions, and related to labs we do.—Educator, High School, Institution of Higher Learning, Colorado
[I give] examples of non-white scientists. —Educator, High School, Tennessee
[I do v]arious STEM activities both in and outside of the classroom. —Educator, Florida
[I use b]ell-ringers on women in science. —Educator, Elementary, Middle School, High School, Oklahoma
I always encourage my female students to consider the fields of math and science. We are a predomina[n]tly Native [American] school, so they are exposed to opportunities; however, our school is small and underfunded.—Educator, High School, Oklahoma
Science careers are discussed, with a variety of people featured. I don’t single out female or male, or minorities.—Educator, Elementary, Connecticut
I use myself as [an example of] a minority woman!—Educator, High School, Oklahoma
[I hold m]onthly STEM challenges and shar[e] biographies of diverse scientists. —Educator, Elementary, Georgia
[I] [c]onnect science to as many of their interests as possible.—Educator, High School, Wisconsin
I try to make sure my kids know that scientists are more than just the “Dead White Guys.” (I’m white.)—Educator, Middle School, California
[I increase awareness t]hrough discussion, classroom resources, projects that increase familiarity of female and minority scientists and their work, and activities that help students identify their own biases in these areas. —Administrator, Institution of Higher Learning, Arkansas

This article originally appeared in the Summer 2017 issue of NSTA Reports, the member newspaper of the National Science Teachers Association. Each month, NSTA members receive NSTA Reports, featuring news on science education, the association, and more. Not a member? Learn how NSTA can help you become the best science teacher you can be.

The mission of NSTA is to promote excellence and innovation in science teaching and learning for all.

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5 Responses to Scientist Stereotypes Eroding Among Students

  1. Lisa says:

    This is edifying news – and kudos to the science teachers with this awareness and who have supported and continue to deliver instruction that emphasizes diversity in the sciences. We have come a long way in 10 years, and will go even further in the future – education can change the world.

  2. Filippo says:

    ” ‘Teenage girls still feel pressure to identify as being squeamish about invertebrates and bodily fluids.’—Educator, High School, New York”
    I’d like to know who these mystery people are who pressure teenage girls to identify as being squeamish about invertebrates and bodily fluids. Surely not the girls’ STEM teachers. Is it scientifically and mathematically illiterate pop culture and sports notables who use the digital devices designed and created by STEM types who, as thanks for their intellectual heavy lifting, are labeled by the anti-intellectual mass pop culture as “geeks” and “nerds”?

  3. Ross says:

    It seems to me there is still a lot of work to do in fostering equity in STEM. It is important that we, as educators and citizens, continue to foster a culture of openness and opportunity for anybody wanting to pursue STEM professionally or simply engage STEM ambiently in life. WRT this study, I have to wonder about the strength of responses to, “…when asked to compare the prevalence of this belief to that of 10 years ago…”. I, for one, have a difficult time doing such meta-assessments.

  4. Dr Richard Shreve says:

    It is the results that count, NOT promises. Political correctness has NO place in a science related discussions. There can not & should not be any differences for informing &/or motivating students. “Easy” science or “priveledged” science used with demographic factors iis a formula for the ruination of science. Lets get back to the fundamentals of question, inquiry, observation, analysis & conclusions. These are the crucial selection factors for advancement of science.

  5. Peggy Ashbrook says:

    Learning about historical and current discrimination against African-Americans and women in science can help students understand today’s underrepresentation of these groups of people.

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