Do Role Models Matter?

How might we encourage students to broaden their definition of who a scientist, mathematician, engineer, technology- person is?

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Do role models matter?

In order to widen the definition of what is a scientist (because I asked 1st graders what a scientist looks like and they all drew an Albert Einstein-like person), do we need to widen the stories about who is a scientist?

Often students' earliest exposures are to a very specific list of scientists: Einstein, umm.. Dr. Frankenstein (that's all the 1st graders I asked gave me though we did have a great conversation about whether Frankenstein was the monster or the scientist). When asked about mathematicians, they couldn't name any nor any engineers. People involved in technology? Bill Gates, Steve Jobs. Inventors? Steve Jobs again as well as Ben Franklin. And when asked why/how they became successful, students said "because they were smart." 

So what happens to the students who don't think they are smart or who don't identify with this narrow definition of a STEM person? Girls? People of color? Non-smart? And what are the issues with dismissing the stories of the above people to just "they are smart"?

Can toys fit help broaden this discussion? Or books? (see A Mighty Girls' Blog Post on Ignite Her Curiosity: 25 Books Starring Science-Loving Mighty Girls including the fabulous new book Ada Twist, Scientist or Mindshift's posting on 14 Books that Connect Students with Valuable Scientists' Struggles)

What are others doing in education to meet this need? What are museums and other places of non-school-based learning doing? 

Update: This is a recent article on the Microsoft Stories Page on one way they are address people's inability to name a female inventor.  “We realized as we started talking to these girls that we had hit on something,” recalled Jenny Leahy, director of marketing for Microsoft’s Global Advertising team. “Even though females in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields have done and continue to do incredible things that have shaped our world, their stories aren’t as well known. Uncovering these stories and celebrating these women is key for the next generation to have female role models to help them realize they can do it, too.”

[Optional] Synthesize a little! In one sentence, describe something you learned from your empathy exercises or analogous research.

Students have a very narrow definition of a scientist (and other STEM people).

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Photo of Michael Szczepanik

One of our Biology teachers years back introduced an idea that seems to at least remotely fit with this.  We have been doing it for about 10 years now (I think).  We call it "Breakfast with a Scientist".  We reach out to local residents that are in science related fields:  From the obvious, like doctors and vets to Crime Scene investigators and Cellular Network engineers and even scientific patent lawyers.  The point is we try to expand our students understanding of what a scientist is.  Those individuals all come in on the same morning during our first set and talk about what they do to high school students and everyone gets breakfast (donated by our school lunch service).  The students do a very short application explaining why they want to attend and what their top three choices are and we assign them a scientist to listen to based on their preferences.  It has a been a great success.

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