Do Role Models Matter?

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

Photo of Jessica Lura

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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).


Join the conversation:

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.

Photo of Erin Quinn

This seems like a really great design opportunity: how might we expand the definition of who scientists are? 

This would be a fascinating inquiry for a group of students and teachers to take on. They could visit scientists in their workplaces over the city to learn more about them. Then perhaps design something that would bring more awareness to people they met and work they discovered that didn't fit the traditional scientist mold.

Photo of Jessica Lura

Love it! It would be interesting to see what they turn up.

Photo of Catherine

This is a great idea. It would be wonderful to expand this at other grade levels. As a middle school teacher I have seen the same ideas from students. Many  students think it is either Einstein or other males that are scientists. We need to reinforce that contributors to fields of science are from all walks of life and not always from traditional science fields. 

Photo of Jessica Lura

Yes! I think that this needs to happen at all grade levels/ages.

Photo of Kimberly

Hi Jessica 

I really like the new book Ada Twist. I always read Rosie Revere to get my students talking about female engineers. I just saw a resource from NASA that continues the idea of exploring real female engineers:

I also used a great website this year to explore real scientists. It went nicely with a lesson where we sketch a scientist and then analyze where our ideas come from using biographies and media. The link was about real scientists, engineers, and mathematicians. it also talked about them on a personal level. It is called the Secret Lives of Scientists:

Photo of Jessica Lura

Thanks! I will check it out.

Photo of Julie Ron

One technique I've used is to bring in guest speakers, either directly into the classroom or at school events (science nights or science fairs), who are STEM professionals. When students interact with dynamic and diverse scientists and engineers it broadens their definition of a scientist, but it can be hard to set up these visits, especially for teachers with limited professional experience in the sciences. I have mostly reached out to friends from my days as Earth Science graduate student to find classroom guests, but programs exist and better ones could be built to make this easier for teachers and potential volunteers. Harnessing technology to allow virtual visits would also lower the barrier to participation.  I have always dreamed of creating a large database of STEM professionals, perhaps akin to a volunteer database like these ) to make visits, mentorship opportunities, and quick Q&A connections during projects easier.

Photo of Jessica Lura

Julie,Great idea. Once we get to the ideate stage, you should definitely add this as a contribution!

Photo of Mark Carlucci

Jessica Lura this makes me think of a skilled trades poster series I am looking to create...

So often STEM fields are looked at as separate from more artist fields. I have found that many people look at creative and "smart" STEM activities as completely separate from each other. STEM is about formulas and exacting procedure, not creativity. Or in the case of skilled trades, its about giving hands-on people, that can't do smarter stuff like English, something to do. 

I've wanted to do a series of posters with pictures of people don't STEM related activities with the caption: "I'm an artist too." Think, a carpenter with a beautiful cabinet, a mathematician with an elegant equation and graph, an architect with an amazing building.

Photo of Jessica Lura

Mark, I love that idea--such a great to broaden the definition and show people who may not be inclined to think of themselves as "stem-y" to see a place where they could also exist. I would love to see what you produce-- I am always impressed by people who are good a graphic design. Might be a good posting in the ideate stage.

Photo of Mark Carlucci

I was thinking ideate for sure. I have been all over promoting skilled trades the last few years after connecting with the organization Skills Ontario, which you might find under the banner of Skills USA (and probably a state level group as well).
Changing people's perception of STEM has been the primary focus of my last four years.
I was fortunate to bring some 70 students and 10 teachers to a hire (20,000 plus person) skilled trade event last year. Nearly every one of them bought in completely. They loved it. They never realized how diverse STEM fields were... And they only had a sampling of about 60 areas. 

Going back to your post, I like how you mention groups like girls. So often they are not the focus of STEM. Girls do awesome in STEM classes, but don't pursue these fields, and if they do, retention is difficult. I always think of one of my female students asking me, "Why don't more girls take tech... They are just as good as the boys."

Photo of Margaret Powers

This is such a critical issue Jessica Lura Thanks for bringing it up! I just came across this post which also reiterates the need for role models

Photo of Jessica Lura

Thanks for the article--I will check it out!