Everyone Benefits when Students See Themselves in Scientists

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I spent several years working in a neuroscience lab at Harvard University. We studied the developing brain, which meant that a lot of our participants were adolescents. To build stronger relationships with local schools, I worked with colleagues to create an educational initiative to give students a behind-the-scenes look at how our science works.

What Students Said

We brought hundreds of students through the lab where they were able to brush up their research skills, take selfies with real brains, and even see their teachers’ brains thanks to our MRI machine. Many of the teachers that we worked with shared that this was the only exposure that their students had to scientists, but the most telling part of the experience was what students — in particular girls and students of color — told me themselves.

“I could never be a scientist. I’m not smart enough.”

“You don’t look like a scientist, are you really?”

“I can’t do science because I don’t want my friends to think I’m a nerd.”

Science has an image problem

What do you think of when you picture a scientist?

If you’re anything like Google Images, it’s probably a white man wearing a lab coat and examining a beaker filled with strange substances. And if you’re anything like the students we asked, it’s specifically Albert Einstein, Bill Nye, or Jimmy Neutron. 

Given the stories that are typically told in textbooks, movies, and comics, it makes sense that most students wouldn’t see themselves in these narratives. After all, it can be difficult to pursue a career that doesn’t seem designed for you.

In the US, scientific institutions lack diversity across race, gender, geography, religion, and even political leanings. This is a complicated issue that can’t be boiled down to any single cause or solution, but we know that societal messaging, insufficient support, and institutional biases all play a part.

Since science itself isn’t immune to the biases of those who do it, it’s particularly important that it be representative of and shaped by everyone.

The “I Am A Scientist” program tells a different story

For every white-haired, pipette-wielding, “genius” type with poor social skills, there are a dozen scientists who are also athletes, musicians, activists, moms, dads, and artists of all ages, identities, and backgrounds.

We recently launched a program to tell their stories, too.

The “I Am A Scientist” program is a collection of educational toolkits based on three principles for breaking barriers in STEM fields:

Humanizing scientists. It’s important for students to understand that becoming a scientist doesn’t mean giving up any other pieces of who they are. We share the wide range of personalities, interests, struggles, and strengths of scientists in the program, so that students have many opportunities to see themselves in the stories.

Diversifying possibilities. Not all scientists work in a lab with beakers and microscopes. Some dig up artifacts from pits of stone, fly in planes to study clouds, study how people behave in groups, or design tools to connect our world. Some do it for the love of numbers, some out of pure curiosity, and some because it’s a powerful tool for addressing a problem they care about. When a student thinks of science, they should think of an entire world of possibilities, and our program is designed to help them get there.

Clarifying career paths. Many students are never taught the practical steps towards becoming a scientist, or the options available to them across industry, academia, policy, and education. We break down the exact path that each featured scientist took, so that students who are inspired to follow in their footsteps know what the next steps might be.

Shifting the narrative benefits everyone

Reports show that many people in the US do not feel like science is relevant to their lives, despite its connection to so many of the issues on our ballots, in our homes, and on our newsfeeds. Non-scientists often don’t know any scientists themselves, and can find it difficult to connect with the faceless name that’s sharing evidence about something that they care about. Society would benefit from science being a unifying force, rather than a divisive one, and that means making sure that everyone is connected to it.

I Am a Scientist” isn’t just for the students who will pursue a STEM career of their own. Students grow up to become leaders, citizens, consumers, and parents. In a society that is increasingly entangled with scientific and technological progress, it’s important for everyone to feel confident engaging with scientific questions, issues, and ethics.

To get there, we first need to make sure that every student knows that they’re smart enough to be a scientist, that they look like a scientist, and, of course, that nerds have friends, too.

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