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Saturday, 16 December, 2000, 01:05 GMT
Scientists are 'boring eccentrics'
child's picture of a scientist
Children's impression of scientists is often stereotyped
Children as young as eight may be put off the idea of becoming scientists because they see them as "middle-aged white males who never have fun", educationists say.

Experts at the University of Leicester, UK, have devised teaching support materials, targeting 12,000 new primary school teachers, to try to counter this stereotyped view.

The activities include using the Three Little Pigs nursery rhyme to investigate the property of materials used to keep out rain water.

child's drawing of a scientist
The researchers want to challenge pre-conceived ideas about scientists
The researchers - from the SCIcentre, the National Centre for Initial Teacher Training in Primary School Science - surveyed between 4,000 and 5,000 children in Leicester and Perth, Australia.

When asked to draw a scientist, children - from the age of eight or nine - were likely to draw a white male, with facial and/or eccentric hair, wearing glasses and a white jacket, director of SCIcentre and senior lecturer at the university, Dr Tina Jarvis, said.

Boys never drew women and only very occasionally would a girl draw a female scientist, Dr Jarvis said. It was also rare for a black or Asian student to draw a black or Asian scientist.

Lasting interest

The "mad professor" image of scientists portrayed on television and in films did not help, Dr Jarvis said.

If they were to develop a lasting interest in science, she said, it was vital to capture children's imaginations before the age of 11.

"In other words, if the child hasn't enjoyed science prior to this age then the child may never enjoy science.

We are potentially losing a huge number of scientists

Dr Tina Jarvis
"The subject is then lost to them and makes little sense in secondary school," she said.

Dr Jarvis believes that, with the current emphasis on the literacy and numeracy hours in primary schools, science is being squeezed.

The disadvantages of this could be mitigated by linking science activities to the literacy hour, including science non-fiction books and scientific writing in literacy time, the centre suggests.

Language translation

The teaching materials compiled by the SCIcentre cover topics such as light and colour, functioning of living organisms and magnets and magnetism among others.

school lab
The SCIcentre wants to encourage children to study science
The work also translates scientific vocabulary into Urdu, Punjabi, Gujarati and Bengali, to enhance young bilingual children's science understanding in the classroom.

Dr Jarvis said the aim of the materials was to introduce children to science before they have made up their minds not to become scientists.

"It's relatively easy to change and widen children's ideas, as they're so open.

"But they won't change if we don't give them the opportunity and we are potentially losing a huge number of scientists," she warned.

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See also:

28 Jun 00 | Education
2001 'year of science'
28 Sep 99 | Education
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University science promised 320m
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