children · education · learning

Un-geekifying scientists

Español: Investigadores en un laboratorio de l...
What makes a career seem achievable, especially in STEM fields? Image via Wikipedia

Interesting article about making science appealing to youngsters, particularly girls:

Addressing the country’s shortfall of students in the STEM disciplines (science, engineering, technology and mathematics) begins with persuading students that scientists are people, too.

A series produced by the science program NOVA, available online, is a good place to start. The Secret Life of Scientists and Engineers (tag line: “Where the lab coats come off”) features footage of scientists working in their labs and sitting down for interviews. The researchers come off as curious, playful, even goofy — people you might want to befriend, or become. The same process of humanization can work with written materials. Susan Nolen, a professor of psychology at the University of Washington, gave two different statistics texts to groups of female students. One selection was written in the remote, impersonal style of most textbooks. The other struck a more accessible tone, sharing the writer’s views and opinions on the information. The text with a “visible author,” as Nolen describes it, prompted the students to engage in mental interactions with the author as they read, a process that promoted their understanding and retention of the material.

Read more: America Needs More Geeks: How to Make Science Cool

Do you agree or disagree with Paul’s assessment? Are scientists scary, unapproachable beings that nobody wants to be when they grow up?

From my personal experience I know that making that kind of job and expertise seem attainable was important to me as a high school and college student. I had a journalism professor in college that I greatly admired, Conn Hallinan. He was so GOOD at what he did; he seemed to know the history of every issue. In his provost house (not even his “real” house) he had an entire room full of file cabinets filled with clippings of stories, and somehow kept track of all of it. It was somewhat intimidating as a budding journalist. I remember thinking a couple of times “I will NEVER be this organized/dedicated/whatever. How will I ever become a journalist?” Thankfully he was very supportive of my budding talents, and I ended up writing for a scientific magazine for several years.

That being said, I think it helps to have the mask removed and being able to see the real people behind some of these professions. At the same time, probably the most helpful course I took in college was a two-credit seminar on writing professions. Each week they brought in guest speakers who talked about how they made money writing, and what they did as side-jobs if/when the writing didn’t pay enough. One journalist who’s name I can’t remember told us that she was a terrible introvert, but loved being a journalist because it gave her an excuse and a reason to talk to people. As a fellow introvert, that helped me a lot.

So, I do think it’s important to humanize jobs if we want kids to pursue them. I was going to say this is especially true for girls, but I think it’s true for both genders.

What are your thoughts? Was there a person that inspired you to get into your current career? What were they like; were they very approachable, or more legendary/iconic? Leave your story in the comments.