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Essay

My kids think I'm a boffin

A science teacher stumbles over a stereotype

Alom Shaha 20 July 2008

www.lablit.com/article/398

Warped: kids seem loaded with false scientific imagery

I started to question my own self-image when some of my physics students drew pictures of me

I am a short, brown guy who was once told, much to my eternal delight, that I look a bit like Erik Estrada. For those of you who don’t know, Erik was the cooler of two partners in the legendary 1980’s US TV cop show CHiPs. It took me two decades before I could afford a pair of Ray Ban aviators to enhance my likeness to Erik. Sadly, the effect is lost on most people and they seem to assume that I am going for some kind of ironic porn star look.

While not particularly vain, I am reasonably concerned about how I appear to other people. Even though I hate shaving, I try not to let my beard grow for more than a couple of days – otherwise I think I start to look dirty and a little bit scary. I wear a freshly ironed shirt to work every day and I take the trouble to put a little product in my hair to make my hair stick down/up in the right places.

Below is a photograph of me. It’s a couple of years old, but still a fairly accurate depiction of what I look like. Squint, and you’ll see Erik Estrada.

Not visibly scientific Alom Shaha does not conform to his students' expectations

I recently started to question whether my own self-image is in fact how I appear to others when some of my physics students drew pictures of me that didn’t look anything like what I think look like. In case you’re wondering, I’m not some kind of narcissistic egomaniac who gets his students to draw portraits of him – the pictures were drawn at the request of a colleague of mine who set the students a “fun” task at the end of a lesson after they had finished a test.

Some students drew pictures of me that vaguely resemble the chap you see in the photo above. However, in many of the pictures (see the main image for an example), I was depicted wearing glasses (I never wear glasses at school) and a white coat (my students have never seen me in a lab coat). I was surrounded by “corrosive!” chemicals and I was invariably drawn alongside a cat. The cat I can explain – I had told my class about my pet cat and they seemed to find it hugely amusing that she is called Minnehaha Shaha. I had explained that there was once a different type of Indian, feathered not dotted, who had a beautiful lover of the same name and that my Minnie was the love of my life. But the white coat and glasses – what was that about?

Research has shown that children in the West hold strongly to certain ideas about what scientists look like. The most famous study is probably that of David Wade Chambers who administered a “Draw-a-Scientist” test to nearly 5000 children aged five to eleven. From the results, Chambers identified seven basic indicators of “the standard image of the scientist” which consistently appeared in the students’ drawings:

  1. lab coat (usually white)
  2. eyeglasses
  3. facial hair (beards, mustaches, abnormally long sideburns)
  4. symbols of research (scientific instruments and laboratory equipment)
  5. symbols of knowledge (books, filing cabinets)
  6. technology (products of science such as rockets)
  7. relevant captions such as formulae and the "eureka" syndrome, etc.

Interestingly (or even worryingly, depending on your perspective), only 28 of the 4,807 drawings done by the students Chambers surveyed were of female scientists.

Chambers carried out his study over twenty years ago, but similar tests have been carried out on numerous occasions since, and have resulted in remarkably similar conclusions. Many people have tried to answer the question why children draw these characteristics when asked to imagine a scientist. There is strong evidence that literature and cinema have played a large role in creating the “mad scientist” stereotype – something Christopher Frayling explores in an accessible way in his book Mad, Bad and Dangerous?: The Scientist and the Cinema. Sadly, the fact that Jeff Goldblum, Will Smith and the totally gorgeous Elzabeth Shue have played scientists in recent Hollywood movies seems to have had little effect in dislodging the ideas children hold about scientists.

If I had carried out the classic “draw-a-scientist” test with my class, I don’t think I would have been surprised to see the kind of drawing you see here. I wouldn’t even have been surprised if some of them had depicted me as “mad” in some shape or form. But the fact that they drew me in a white coat and glasses, despite my lack of both, makes me concerned about just how strongly children hold onto these often negative stereotypes of scientists. Maybe I’ll get my students to draw me again in a year’s time – perhaps by then they’ll see me more like Erik Estrada and less like some character out of a 1950s B-movie.