Scientists are like magicians capable even of flying or they are closed in dark laboratories busy at experimenting, doing mixtures, trying again and again formulas – often explosive ones. We have always seen scientists like these either in the pages of kids’ books and comics or while they marching undisturbed past TV screens picturing science as something distant from reality and excessive. How much do these images inform the way new generations look at scientists? No doubts, in fact, children and teenagers are the most receptive addressees and, at the same time, those who elaborate first-hand the repertoire offered by media. This is mainly because teenagers and children give back in a clear-cut and not too rationalized way what the collective imagination suggests to them in terms of science and technology.
Thanks to the continuing contact with students and teachers, following a five-year initiative in the didactic of Astronomy in primary and secondary schools, the Sociology Department of the University of Padua together with the Padua Observatory of the National Institute of Astrophysics has started to suspect that something changed, rapidly and recently, in the stereotype of the scientist elaborated by the youngest generations. Consequently, they have decided to analyze how children and teenagers aged 6-13 represent the protagonists of science – scientists, chemists, astronomers – in order to define common and different points among the above three different professional profiles and to understand how much media influences the construction of such representations. An understanding of the starting point in children and teenagers’ imaginary when talking about science and scientists plays a fundamental role for the design and implementation of an effective didactic.
In order to proceed with the research, we have proposed a questionnaire in addition to a traditional Draw a Scientist Test (in which teens were asked to draw a scientist, an astronomer or a chemist in complete autonomy without any interventions from teachers). The questionnaire we proposed, varying according to age groups, asked questions on the socio-cultural background (for example parents’ professional occupation), on the familiarity with scientific topics (scientific games, use of educational workshops, museum visits), on the interest for scientific topics (preferred school subjects, fruition of TV programs, reading of books on the public understanding of science). The material collected on a sample of 1300 students on the whole national territory has formed the basis for a standard content-type analysis (ex-post) taking into account more than 80 variables in each drawing and questionnaire.
First and foremost, in the unfolding of our analysis a clear-cut line has stood out separating the chemist and the scientist from the astronomer. This is true both for the depiction of the simpler and more predictable characters (for instance, in the choice of the surrounding setting, astronomers are largely represented outdoors, whereas chemists and scientists inside a lab; even more, in depicting the physical features and tools used it is common to find scientists and chemists strongly stereotyped, in a lab coat and a pair of glasses, struggling with test tubes and laboratory instruments while astronomers, without any spectacles or gowns, prefer to watch the sky with binoculars or a telescope) and in the representation of more complex characters. Actually a clear-cut distinction should be pointed out emphasizing the purely observational character of astronomical research, away from operations that may involve risks, something belonging to the other professionals. In kids’ drawings, in fact, astronomers do not make a large use of science fiction or magic tricks. Symbols that clearly refer to a science-fiction scenario – such as wands, potions, time machines, flying wings or “anti-stink” vials – can be found more frequently in the representations of scientists (41%) and chemists (41.5%), whereas they come up only among 17.4% of astronomers. The same goes for blasts or hazard symbols: astronomers refer to a symbolic universe of security, a universe where scientific research is in tune with nature and leaves no room for dangerous and unknown worlds. The fact that in this context the image of scientists is likened to that of chemists rather than to that of astronomers, suggests that the line of potentially dangerous manipulation extends so as far as to include the realm of science in general.
A new interpretive line sees the presence of fashion elements associated with the said three professional profiles. In the drawings there are indeed characters that lead to current trends. Boots and coats slit, hair accessories that recall those popular among teenagers over the same period, branded t-shirts appear in the drawings analyzed, some how breaking the most commonplace representation and sketching a profile of scientists, chemists and astronomers as people not so distant from the real world: they too can wear ordinary clothes or they can even keep up with the times wearing Nike sneakers and Dolce & Gabbana T-shirts! In short, it looks as if a progressive affirmation of a science less detached from everyday life was taking place, allowing researchers to step out from the laboratory to lead a normal life.
Another line of evolution, in this case specifically related to teens’ age, seems to depend on the teenager’s gender: girls of the latest generation (6-8 years) are keener than older girls on representing women as scientists, chemists or astronomers. In contrast, the perception that boys have of scientists does not seem to vary significantly when it comes to gender, regardless of the different age groups considered. Males of all groups still represent a fairly constant percentage of scientists, chemists and astronomers as males in 90% of cases. It is hard to say whether, as it would be desirable, the fact that the imaginary perception that scientists are male grows with age is a real generational change or more likely a consequence of life experiences. This leaves open the prospect of a real generational change that, nevertheless, only a longitudinal analysis shall confirm.
In this context it seems that media exposure does not play a particularly strong role in shaping the representation of the scientific universe in boys, although science is largely present in media of broad circulation. Television, newspapers, books and magazines often cope with scientific issues, quite apart from the fact that science appears as the main ingredient of many events and topics covered by the media. All in all, one can notice that on the one hand, relatively few teens claim to have some familiarity with science albeit mediated by the press, television or cultural events promoting a public understanding of science. On the other, in the drawings few elements refer to comics, television shows or popular characters that can be variously linked to the scientific imagery (the most widespread albeit in a very little significant way are Harry Potter, Dragonball, ER, Gray’s anatomy).
In short, the scientific imagery present in the media, particularly in those with a widespread circulation such as television seems to leave a weak mark on the social representations of science. And even among those, a minority, who express their interest in science the effects seem to be still quite limited and seem to bring teens to simply recognize and most frequently represent those symbols that are highly expected (the presence of stars and telescopes associated with astronomers or the frequency of white coats and test tubes associated with chemists and scientists increases).
In representing the most controversial features such as the link between science and danger or the evocation of magic and references to science fiction it is noted that kids more used than others watching science on television or reading it in magazines tend to represent scientists by referring to the imagery of science fiction, or by connecting them to blasts and, more generally, to danger. This is a result that, after all, should not surprise us too much, because it confirms the fact that the media, in order to attract the young audience to science, makes use of narrative strategies and iconology in which reality blends with fantasy, as if the price to pay to gain the teenagers’ attention would be to provide a caricatured depiction of science and research work.
The complete article was published on journal Sapere.