Archive for March 29th, 2013

March 29, 2013

What Does a Scientist Look Like?

by Melissa Harding

This article was originally posted last fall, but is reposted today due to popular demand. Enjoy!

What do you think when you hear the word “scientist”? If you think of Doc Brown from Back to the Future or Bunsen Honeydew from The Muppet Show, you are not alone. Studies show that, when asked to draw a scientist, most children draw some “mad scientist” version of those characters. Researchers have been studying this problem since the early 1980’s and have even developed a rubric for scoring how stereotypical these drawing are. The Draw-A-Scientist Checklist (DAST-C) was developed in 1983 to provide a reliable formula for analyzing student drawings. Each item on the checklist represents a stereotypical characteristic relating to students’ views of scientists. Examples include: wearing a lab coat or glasses, having bushy hair, holding instruments of knowledge like clipboards and calculators, relevent captions like “eureka!”, etc. Researchers also look for the prevalence of caucasian males representing race and gender in these drawings.

“For you, what is a scientist?” Some of the answers of primary school children gathered by Marie-Odile Lafosse-Marin, Espace des Sciences Pierre-Gilles de Gennes, ESPCI-ParisTech.

The pictures in the above video are typical examples of the kinds of drawings made by students. There have been hundreds of studies on this subject; I want to highlight a few of them to illustrate the problem, but I am more interested in presenting solutions.

One of the most famous of these studies, conducted at the US Department of Energy’s Fermilab facility (the only US laboratory dedicated to high energy physics), tracked a class of seventh grader’s perceptions of what a scientist looks like before and after visiting the lab and talking to the physicists who work there. The results are fascinating. Prior to their visit, students’ drawings showed the typical “mad scientist” aesthetic talked about above. However, after meeting the scientists in the lab and talking to them, their drawings and descriptions showed a real change; students drew scientists as regular people, with hobbies and outside interests, who also happened to have important jobs.

In another study, researchers also asked students to draw themselves practicing science in school and to describe how science relates to their lives. Most students (56%) drew themselves sitting at a desk and taking notes. When asked about their drawings, these students said that reading their books or taking notes are usually what they do in science. The minority drew themselves doing various science activities. When asked how relevent the science they do in school is to their lives at home, the majority of students viewed science as something they can use at home, although only a few cited the scientific process specifically.

The real questions is: what do studies like these mean for our students? If children perceive scientists to look a certain way, especially when that is different from themselves, it can make the field of science seem like less of an option for them and diminish diversity in the scientific community. These studies also indicate a lack of knowledge of the nature of science and the work scientists do, as well as a general lack of interest in science. Many fear that while curriculum developers and science educators strive to highlight women and different ethnicities as scientists, adult views of science may come mostly from ingrained stereotypes learned during childhood.

So let’s talk about some solutions (and there are many). It seems that the best way for children to understand what a real scientist looks like is to meet them and talk to them. One great program, 1,000 Scientists in 1,000 Days, is an effort by the journal Scientific American to put real scientists into classrooms all over the country. Another example is the Botany in Action (BIA) program at Phipps, which brings scientists from all over the world to interact with students in Pittsburgh. The Eco Challenge, one such BIA event,  invites high school students to interview these scientists and learn about their research. Students learn that life in the field is both challenging and rewarding, as well as the idea that “research” can encompass a wide range of topics.

The internet is also another great source. The charming new website, This is a What a Scientist Looks Like, is a good place to start. This website invites scientists to change perceptions about what a scientist is or isn’t by being themselves: contributors submit their picture and a short description about what they do. The result is a collection of faces that challenges assumptions and represents a wide swatch of the scientific community. The Tumblr I am Science allows scientists to share personal stories about what science means to them. These heartfelt and personal online interactions with real scientists are fantastic.

Finally, talking about and investigating science at home is the best way to get your child to see the relevance of science in his or her life. There are hundreds of resources, online and at your local library, of science experiments to conduct and scientists to learn about. Most importantly, try to exhibit attitudes and values that support learning. Be positive and try to help your child see science as it already exists around him or her. Before you know it, you will have a future scientist on your hands!

For more information on how to interest your child in science learning, check out’s list of parent’s resources, including information from NASA, US Department of Education and Brain POP.

The above images were taken by Molly Steinwald and Melissa Harding.


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