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

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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.

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Notes

  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. 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. 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. 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. 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.

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Correspondence to Jennifer DeWitt.

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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

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