, Volume 21, Issue 4, pp 23-42

How does culture shape students’ perceptions of scientists? Cross-national comparative study of American and Chinese elementary students

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Abstract

For decades, researchers have been convinced that one stereotypic image of scientists existed among children worldwide (Chambers, 1983; Chiang & Guo, 1996; Fung, 2002; Maoldomhnaigh & Hunt, 1988; Newton & Newton, 1992, 1998; She, 1998; Song, Pak, & Jang, 1992). This study, however, moves beyond that stereotypic image and examines students’ perceptions of scientists. The purpose of this study is to illustrate that students are influenced not only by the personal images they hold of scientists, but also by cultural impressions and the style of the science courses they experience in school. By combining a contemporary perspective and a creative method of analyzing student perceptions, a theoretical understanding of how students interpret scientists and their work was developed. Elementary school children (N=1,350) in the United States and China were enrolled in this study, and drawing exercises were utilized to provide new evidence and a fresh perspective regarding the way students perceive scientists. Based on the findings of this research, more American students included the traditional image of a science laboratory with chemicals in their pictorial depictions of scientists, while Chinese students included robots in their drawings. While students in both countries demonstrated misconceptions about scientists, this study identifies those misconceptions as significantly different, yet inherently related, to students’ individual cultures, contrary to previous studies. This study also demonstrates that a child’s environment can be influenced by their existing culture, and thus learning, or perceiving the role of scientists, can be directly influenced since each classroom is a culture of its own. Finally, this study demonstrates that a child’s sense of who can be a scientist, where scientists work, and what scientists do is influenced by cultural experiences. Today, with fewer students pursuing science careers, these findings are especially noteworthy.