Skip to main content

Nerdy, Brainy and Normal: Children’s and Parents’ Constructions of Those Who Are Highly Engaged with Science

Abstract

There is a continuing international concern about a decline in the pursuit of post-compulsory science. One suggested cause concerns the role that young people's narrow perceptions of scientists may play in deterring them from pursuing science qualifications and careers. Research would suggest that the ages of 10–14 appear to be a critical period for the development of such views. This paper looks at the early part of this period, when general liking for science is high, although views on science careers as ‘not for me’ also appear to be forming. Drawing on data collected from interviews conducted with 92 children and 78 parents (in which children described peers who are ‘really into’ science and parents described those who are likely to pursue a career in science), we examine the constructions children and parents have of those who are highly engaged with science. In the interviews, participants evoked a range of constructions, some of which were closely aligned with traditional stereotypical images of science and scientists (e.g. as ‘geeky’) while others moderated and/or challenged those images. Although very few participants held explicitly ‘negative’ representations of science/scientists, our analysis shows how popular constructions of science as ‘specialist’ and ‘clever’ may feed into an understanding of science as different and not for me. It is argued that more work needs to be done to open up science as a field that is accessible ‘for all’ and to increase students' awareness of the breadth of careers in and from science.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Notes

  1. 1.

    Obviously, this approach is asking students to reflect on an ‘extreme’ form of science identification, which carries its own limitations and which may not lend itself to eliciting discourses of ‘normal’ science engagement. However, it was used in the interviews as a discursive device and a means of prompting talk around different forms of science engagement. Questions were phrased in as open a way as possible, so as not to unduly set up the ‘reality’ (nor the desirability or undesirability) of this particular ‘type’ of engagement.

  2. 2.

    Not interviewing parents who had returned consent forms was generally due to logistical constraints (e.g. two mothers had recently given birth) which prevented finding a convenient time to conduct the interview. These 11 parents came from a variety of ethnic and social class backgrounds, and we have since been in contact with all but one, suggesting we may be able to interview them later in the project.

  3. 3.

    While the sample is not representative of the ethnic make-up and social class backgrounds of the national population of year 6 students, it was generated purposively to capture a wide range of backgrounds and experiences. Additionally, we are aware that due to the voluntary nature of participation, children and parents who were interviewed may not be representative of the attitudes towards science held by the general population. Because our sample may not be representative, our conclusions are necessarily provisional and tentative.

  4. 4.

    For the children, these questions were ‘Thinking of people who are really into science, what are they like? How would you describe them?’ and ‘Is it possible for someone at your school to be really into science and also be popular? Why do you say that?’ For the parents, these questions included ‘Do you think there is a particular type of person who tends to become a scientist? and ‘Why do you think so few children continue to study science after age 16?’ (science is a compulsory subject in the UK until age 16).

  5. 5.

    Although Lucy uses the word ‘man’ rather than ‘person’, consistent with an underlying image of scientists as male, we classify this statement as normal because of her overt disavowal of the suggestion that certain ‘types of people’ might become scientists. In addition, she was the only parent of the 18 whose justification for there not being a type had any reference to gender. At the same time, it does highlight the complexity and problematic nature of trying to categorise statements which might be in some ways consistent with a stereotype of scientists (at least as male, if not as geeky), but not in others.

References

  1. Archer, L., DeWitt, J., Osborne, J., Dillon, J., Willis, B., & Wong, B. (2010). ‘Doing’ science vs ‘being’ a scientist: examining 10/11 year old school children’s constructions of science through the lens of identity. Science Education, 94(4), 617–639.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  2. Archer, L., DeWitt, J., Osborne, J., Dillon, J., Willis, B., & Wong, B. (2012). Science aspirations and family habitus: how families shape children’s identification and engagement with science. American Educational Research Journal. doi:10.3102/0002831211433290.

  3. Archer, L., & Francis, B. (2007). Understanding minority ethnic achievement. London: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  4. Atherton, G., Cymbir, E., Roberts, K., Page, L., Remedios, R., Aimhigher Central London Partnership & University of Westminster. (2009). How young people formulate their views about the future—exploratory research. Research Report DCSF-RR152. London: University of Westminster.

  5. Baker, D., & Leary, R. (1995). Letting girls speak out about science. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 32(1), 3–27.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  6. Basu, S. J., & Calabrese Barton, A. (2007). Developing a sustained interest in science among urban minority youth. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 44(3), 466–489.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  7. Basu, S. J., Calabrese Barton, A., Clairmont, N., & Locke, D. (2009). Developing a framework for critical science agency through case study in a conceptual physics context. Cultural Studies of Science Education, 4, 345–371.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  8. Bennett, J., & Hogarth, S. (2009). Would you want to talk to a scientist at a party? High school students’ attitudes to school science and to science. International Journal of Science Education, 31(14), 1975–1998.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. Bleeker, M. M., & Jacobs, J. E. (2004). Achievement in math and science: do mothers’ beliefs matter 12 years later? Journal of Educational Psychology, 96(1), 97–109.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  10. Boe, M. V., Henriksen, E. K., Lyons, T., & Schreiner, C. (2011). Participation in science and technology: young people’s achievement-related choices in late-modern societies. Studies in Science Education, 47(1), 37–72.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  11. Brickhouse, N. W., Lowery, P., & Schultz, K. (2000). What kind of a girl does science? The construction of school science identities. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 37(5), 441–458.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. Brown, B. A. (2004). Discursive identity: assimilation into the culture of science and its implications for minority students. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 41(8), 810–834.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  13. Buck, G. A., Plano Clark, V. L., Leslie-Pelecky, D., Lu, Y., & Cerda-Lizarraga, P. (2008). Examining the cognitive processes used by adolescent girls and women in identifying science role models: a feminist approach. Science Education, 92(4), 688–707.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. Burman, E., & Parker, I. (Eds.). (1993). Discourse analytic research: repertoires and readings of texts in action. London: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  15. Burr, V. (1995). An introduction to social constructionism. London: Routledge.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  16. Calabrese Barton, A. (1998). Teaching science with homeless children: pedagogy, representation, and identity. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 35(4), 379–394.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  17. Calabrese Barton, A., & Tan, E. (2010). We Be Burnin’! Agency, identity, and science learning. The Journal of the Learning Sciences, 19(2), 187–229.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. Calabrese Barton, A., Tan, E., & Rivet, A. (2008). Creating hybrid spaces for engaging school science among urban middle school girls. American Educational Research Journal, 45(1), 68–103.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  19. Carlone, H. B. (2003). (Re)producing good science students: girls’ participation in high school physics. Journal of Women and Minorities in Science and Engineering, 9(1), 17–34.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  20. Carlone, H. B. (2004). The cultural production of science in reform-based physics: girls’ access, participation, and resistance. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 41(4), 392–414.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  21. Carlone, H. B., Kimmel, J., Lowder, C., Rockford, J., Scott, C. (2011). Becoming (less) scientific in the figured worlds of school science learning: a longitudinal study of students' identities. Paper presented at the Annual meeting of the National Association for Research in Science Education. Orlando, Florida.

  22. Chambers, D. W. (1983). Stereotypic images of the scientist: the Draw-a-Scientist Test. Science Education, 67(2), 255–265.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  23. Cleaves, A. (2005). The formation of science choices in secondary school. International Journal of Science Education, 27(4), 471–486.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  24. Davies, B. (1993). Shards of glass: children reading and writing beyond gendered identities. Cresskill: Hampton Press.

    Google Scholar 

  25. DeWitt, J., Osborne, J., Archer, L., Dillon, J., Willis, B., & Wong, B. (2011). Young children’s aspirations in science: the unequivocal, the uncertain and the unthinkable. International Journal of Science Education. doi:10.1080/09500693.2011.608197.

  26. Driver, R., Leach, J., Millar, R., & Scott, P. (1996). Young people’s images of science. Buckingham: Open University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  27. European Commission. (2004). Europe needs more scientists: report by the high level group on increasing human resources for science and technology. Brussels: European Commission.

    Google Scholar 

  28. Ferry, T. R., Fouad, N. A., & Smith, P. L. (2000). The role of family context in a social cognitive model for career-related choice behavior: a math and science perspective. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 57(3), 348–364.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  29. Finson, K. D. (2002). Drawing a scientist: what we do and do not know after fifty years of drawings. School Science and Mathematics, 102(7), 335–345.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  30. Flick, L. (1990). Scientist in residence program improving children’s image of science and scientists. School Science and Mathematics, 90(3), 204–214.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  31. Foucault, M. (1980). Power/knowledge: selected interviews and other writings 1972–1977. New York: Pantheon.

    Google Scholar 

  32. Francis, B., Read, B., & Skelton, C. (2010). The simultaneous production of educational achievement and popularity: how do some pupils accomplish it? British Educational Research Journal, 36(2), 317–340.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  33. Gilbert, J., & Calvert, S. (2003). Challenging accepted wisdom: looking at the gender and science education question through a different lens. International Journal of Science Education, 25(7), 861–878.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  34. Gilmartin, S. K., Li, E., & Aschbacher, P. (2006). The relationship between secondary students’ interest in physical science or engineering, science class experiences, and family contexts: variations by gender and race/ethnicity. Journal of Women and Minorities in Science and Engineering, 12(2–3), 179–207.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  35. Hannover, B., & Kessels, U. (2004). Self-to-prototype matching as a strategy for making academic choices. Why high school students do not like math and science. Learning and Instruction, 14(1), 51–67.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  36. Hazari, Z., Sonnert, G., Sadler, P. M., & Shanahan, M.-C. (2010). Connecting high school physics experiences, outcome expectations, physics identity, and physics career choice: a gender study. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 47(8), 978–1003.

    Google Scholar 

  37. Treasury, H. M. (2006). Science and innovation investment framework: next steps. London: HMSO.

    Google Scholar 

  38. Huber, R. A., & Burton, G. M. (1995). What do students think scientists look like? School Science and Mathematics, 95(7), 371–376.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  39. Ipsos Mori Social Research Institute. (2011). Public attitudes to science 2011. London: Ipsos Mori.

    Google Scholar 

  40. Jackson, C. (2002). Laddishness’ as a self-worth protection strategy. Gender and Education, 14(1), 37–51.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  41. Jenkins, E. W., & Nelson, N. W. (2005). Important but not for me: students’ attitudes towards secondary school science in England. Research in Science and Technological Education, 23(1), 41–57.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  42. Koren, P., & Bar, V. (2009). Pupils’ image of 'the scientist’ among two communities in Israel: a comparative study. International Journal of Science Education, 31(18), 2485–2509.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  43. Lee, J. D. (1998). Which kids can “become” scientists? Effects of gender, self-concepts, and perceptions of scientists. Social Psychology Quarterly, 61(3), 199–219.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  44. Losh, S. C. (2010). Stereotypes about scientists over time among US adults: 1983 and 2001. Public Understanding of Science, 19(3), 372–382.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  45. Losh, S. C., Wilke, R., & Pop, M. (2008). Some methodological issues with “Draw a Scientist Tests” among young children. International Journal of Science Education, 30(6), 773–792.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  46. Lyons, T., & Quinn, F. (2010). Choosing science: understanding the declines in senior high school science enrolments. Armidale: University of New England.

    Google Scholar 

  47. Mead, M., & Metraux, R. (1957). Image of the scientist among high-school students. Science, 126(3270), 384–390.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  48. Mendick, H. (2005). A beautiful myth? The gendering of being/doing ‘good at maths’. Gender and Education, 17(2), 203–219.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  49. Mendick, H. (2006). Masculinities in mathematics. Maidenhead: Open University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  50. Mendick, H. (2008). Subtracting difference: troubling transitions from GCSE to AS-level mathematics. British Educational Research Journal, 34(6), 711–732.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  51. Miles, M. B., & Huberman, A. M. (1994). Qualitative data analysis (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks: Sage.

    Google Scholar 

  52. Mills, M. (2001). Challenging violence in schools: an issue of masculinities. Maidenhead: Open University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  53. National Academy of Sciences: Committee on Science Engineering and Public Policy. (2005). Rising above the gathering storm: energizing and employing America for a brighter economic future. Washington, DC: National Academy of Sciences.

    Google Scholar 

  54. Newton, L. D., & Newton, D. P. (1998). Primary children's conceptions of science and the scientist: is the impact of a National Curriculum breaking down the stereotype? International Journal of Science Education, 20(9), 1137–1149.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  55. Olitsky, S. (2006). Structure, agency, and the development of students' identities as learners. Cultural Studies of Science Education, 1, 745–766.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  56. Olitsky, S., Flohr, L. L., Gardner, J., & Billups, M. (2010). Coherence, contradiction, and the development of school science identities. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 47(10), 1209–1228.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  57. Osborne, J., Simon, S., Tytler, R. (2009). Attitudes towards science: an update. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association. San Diego, California.

  58. Palmer, D. H. (1997). Investigating students' private perceptions of scientists and their work. Research in Science and Technological Education, 15(2), 173–183.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  59. Renold, E. (2005). Girls, boys and junior sexualities. London: Routledge Falmer.

    Google Scholar 

  60. Said, E. W. (1978). Orientalism. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

    Google Scholar 

  61. Salisbury, J., & Jackson, D. (1996). Challenging macho values: practical ways of working with adolescent boys. London: Palmer Press.

    Google Scholar 

  62. Scherz, Z., & Oren, M. (2006). How to change students’ images of science and technology. Science Education, 90(6), 965–985.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  63. Schreiner, C., & Sjoberg, S. (2007). Science education and young people's identity construction—two mutually incompatible projects? In D. Corrigan, J. Dillon, & R. Gunstone (Eds.), The re-emergence of values in the science curriculum (pp. 1–17). Rotterdam: Sense Publishers.

    Google Scholar 

  64. Shanahan, M.-C., & Nieswandt, M. (2011). Science student role: evidence of social structural norms specific to school science. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 48(4), 367–395.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  65. Smith, W. S., & Erb, T. O. (1986). Effect of women science career role models on early adolescents’ attitudes toward scientists and women in science. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 23(8), 667–676.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  66. Solomon, J., Duveen, J., & Duveen, L. (1994). Pupils’ images of scientific epistemology. International Journal of Science Education, 16(3), 361–373.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  67. Song, J., & Kim, K.-S. (1999). How Korean students see scientists: the images of the scientist. International Journal of Science Education, 21(9), 957–977.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  68. Steinke, J., Knight Lapinski, M., Crocker, N., Zietsman-Thomas, A., Williams, Y., Higdon Evergreen, S., et al. (2007). Assessing media influences on middle school aged children’s perceptions of women in science using the Draw-a-Scientist Test (DAST). Science Communication, 29(1), 35–64.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  69. Taconis, R., & Kessels, U. (2009). How choosing science depends on students’ individual fit to ‘science culture’. International Journal of Science Education, 31(8), 1115–1132.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  70. Tan, E., & Calabrese Barton, A. (2008). Unpacking science for all through the lens of identities-in-practice: the stories of Amelia and Ginny. Cultural Studies of Science Education, 3(1), 43–71.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  71. Thompson, J. (2011). Engaging girlsidentities in science. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the National Association for Research in Science Teaching, Orlando, FL.

  72. Turner, S. L., Steward, J. C., & Lapan, R. T. (2004). Family factors associated with sixth-grade adolescents' math and science career interests. The Career Development Quarterly, 53, 41–52.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  73. Varelas, M., Kane, J. M., & Wylie, C. D. (2011). Young African American children's representations of self, science, and school: Making sense of difference. Science Education, 95(5), 824–851.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  74. Widmeyer Research & Polling (2009). Attitudes toward math and science education among American students and parents. Report commissioned by Carnegie-IAS.

Download references

Author information

Affiliations

Authors

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Jennifer DeWitt.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

DeWitt, J., Archer, L. & Osborne, J. Nerdy, Brainy and Normal: Children’s and Parents’ Constructions of Those Who Are Highly Engaged with Science. Res Sci Educ 43, 1455–1476 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11165-012-9315-0

Download citation

Keywords

  • Attitudes
  • Aspirations
  • Identity
  • Images of scientists
  • Peers