In October I visited a secondary school as a STEM Ambassador (http://www.stemnet.org.uk/ambassadors/). The event I participated in has allegedly been inspired by a television programme – small groups of pupils have five minutes to visit your “stall”, examine your display of “clues” which you brought as “everyday tools of the job” and ask questions with the aim of guessing your occupation. Of course nobody expects them to find out the exact job description, hence guidelines for ambassadors new to this activity suggest that you identify three key words which the pupils should work out given the evidence you provided (as well as the answers to their questions, depending on how pertinent these were). I was personally concerned that being a PhD student in atomic and laser physics might be obscure and therefore very challenging to guess. I thus agreed with one of the organisers of the event that my key words would be the following: scientist/researcher – student – physics.
I am not sure of the exact number of pupils who quizzed me throughout the day – there were probably about thirty groups of five pupils each, and I think that only two or three of them found out all three descriptive words. Despite the relevance of such statistics, it is one specific episode which stood out as particularly insightful. I remember this group who seemed to be struggling quite visibly – after one long minute of questions and staring looks, they hadn’t yet concluded that I was “doing some kind of science”, whereby I decided I would try to help them by giving away a half-clue. Mine was intended as a test, and in fact I was hoping that this would actually fail to help them in any way, while it would confirm to me that one stereotype ceased to exist: scientists wear white lab coats and walk around with a sort of odd expression on their face and unruly hair. I did not expect such label to ring any meaningful bell, hence I addressed the pupils and gained their attention: “Listen to me – you know that character that appears in series and films, who wears a white coat and looks a bit odd? How would you call this person?” A fraction of a second later came the answer – “Ah, yes, a scientist – oh wait, you’re a scientist!” This is what in science is called confutation of a hypothesis: I believed that the “white lab coat stereotype” had disappeared, and I was wrong. I tested the stereotyped hint on a few more groups (many of them guessed the “researcher” key word quickly and independently), and the mention of the white coat and unruly hair always triggered the same response.
I am aware that the validity of my test is limited by the size of the sample (the main problem being that I did not include every group in the test), yet I was surprised with its outcome. It would be wrong to assign too deep a meaning to my latest experience as a STEM Ambassador, but it certainly made me think once more about the importance of presenting the variety and richness of science to as vast a public as possible.
** The image “Lab Coats 1” was taken from Flickr