The Bug Geek

Insects. Doing Science. Other awesome, geeky stuff.

Wrong for science?

Last night I was up too late (again), nursing a too-busy brain with a good dose of Internet, when the Twitterverse led me to an post by Marie-Claire Shanahan on the blog Boundary Vision, entitled, “Who is the traditional right type of person for science?”

It would appear there are some common themes in terms of (high school) students’ opinions about what makes a good scientist, i.e., they are inquisitive, creative, follow rules, employ critical thinking, and have a certain level of theoretical or technical expertise.

There are also some common misconceptions, which are brilliantly illustrated in a comic that a number of my science-student-buddies were passing around last week:

Public perception of science, and the reality (from

It seems that students often think they’re not “the right type of person” to do science because of the mistaken notion that scientists have such giant, enormous brains that they never struggle, make mistakes, or have to ask questions. For example:

[A] student, who didn’t see herself as a science student despite having good marks, told me that she based her assessment mostly on the fact that she asks the teacher a lot of questions to make sure she understands. “Real science students shouldn’t have to do that”, she said. This seems in some ways antithetical to science. Isn’t asking questions and pushing until you understand one of the defining characteristics of scientific scholarship? Some students went as far as to say that real science students don’t need to participate in science class because they should know the right answers already.

That student could have been me.

When I was in my second last year of high school, I was struggling to keep up in my senior biology class. My mark was dismal. My parents came in to chat with the teacher.  Her helpful advice? “Science isn’t really your thing.  You should try something else.”

If I hadn’t felt stupid already, I sure did now. I figured she was right: I did not, after all, really fit societal expectations of “a good science student”. My struggle turned into apathy. I stopped asking questions in class. I scraped by with a barely-passing grade.

The effects of the teachers’ words lingered. At the time of our conversation, I had been thinking about going to vet school. A year later, I was passionately anti-science, and would tell anyone who would listen that I was an “artsie”.

I applied for university programs in psychology, journalism and technical theatre. I ended up in journalism . It quickly became clear that, although I was doing well, it really wasn’t turning my crank…what on earth was I going to do?

Then, a lucky fluke: in my second semester I took an elective class called “Natural History of Ontario”. It was like a floodlight went off in my brain. HOLY CRAP, THIS STUFF IS AWESOME!  THIS IS WHAT I WANT TO DO!!! That summer I took 3 senior science and math classes, and started back at my university in the fall as a first-year biology student.

I haven’t looked back since.

Says Shanahan, in the original article on which her blog post was based:

The ability to generate new explanations, see novel connections, and navigate fluidly between representations are among only some of the aspects of scientific intelligence that have been neglected in students’ conceptualizations….In a classroom, however, [an] impoverished view of intelligence is the one that is likely rewarded. Grades are the primary measure of success in school science…

What I discovered as I successfully navigated through two science degrees, and continue to learn as I work on my third, is that many of my “messy” or “not-sciencey” characteristics are what help me learn and do good science. I “reauthored” myself as a science student, with new ideas about acceptable roles and attributes.

I ask a lot of questions – I don’t know everything, after all.

I make a lot of mistakes – but I learn from them.

I work hard to grasp new concepts – it helps me remember them and make meaningful connections to other concepts.

I do things my own way sometimes, not always following set rules – it lets me develop new approaches or ideas.

I permit myself to be distracted – my meandering, random brain often hits on great stuff that way.

As much as I’ve come to recognize the value of these traits, I am still, in some ways, as guilty as ever of believing that maybe I’m doing science all wrong, and that others are better scientists than me because they better adhere to my old notions about “real science” or “real scientists”.

Can we change the culture of science and science education to recognize and value traits other than those pervasive and persistently-held? DOES the culture change beyond high school? I would love to see this study repeated with, say, second-year university students. And again with tenured professors.


Shanahan, M., & 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 DOI: 10.1002/tea.20406

18 responses to “Wrong for science?

  1. blackflyguy November 21, 2011 at 3:36 PM

    Great post. I feel like I contributed ever so slightly by posting the rage comic on FB. I definitely went through a similar experience, but I managed to do my back peddling in high school (where it is still funded by the government :P)

    • TGIQ November 21, 2011 at 5:37 PM

      Indeed, it immediately came to mind as I read this blog post & paper – it was the perfect visual aid! I’ve been going back to it for days, it keeps making me lol! At least I only back peddled for one year – and it was useful in other ways, even if it didn’t count towards my degree 🙂

  2. stevenhamblin November 21, 2011 at 6:04 PM

    I’ve been wondering for a while if this doesn’t have something to do with the “Hero scientist” trope that I keep seeing in pop culture. If you take a look at nearly any TV show or movie that portrays a scientist in a positive light (i.e. not a mad scientist), said scientist is invariably:

    – massively over-endowed in the brain department, requiring little or no effort to perform the most complex of tasks,
    – usually brilliant in multiple fields,
    – never shown putting in the time required to master their profession, such as reading the scientific literature or attending conferences, and
    – a lone-wolf who doesn’t need a “team” or “collaborators” to slow them down.

    Examples? One of my favourite is a show I’ve enjoyed, Stargate SG-1; one of the lead characters is a scientist, Samantha Carter, who seems to have no problem handling the entirety of mathematics, physics, chemistry, and biology all on her own with no help from anyone else. Science fiction in general is fairly bad for this. Even shows that try to take a more balanced approach to this, like Numb3rs, still have some of these elements. The lead character on Numb3rs, Charlie, is – of course – a massive genius who can happily dig out and practically apply knowledge from any corner of mathematics at a moment’s notice.

    Now, I understand the pressures driving this; Hollywood can’t spend its time getting these things right, because people aren’t interested. If they wanted to know how science really worked, they’d watch a documentary, not a drama. But I can’t help wondering what effect this has on the people who watch it. I know that it makes *me* feel inadequate sometimes, before I catch myself and remind myself that these characters are just overblown fictions of a writer’s imagination. How might someone younger and more impressionable react to this portrayal? Perhaps they might think that they have to know all the answers or they don’t measure up?

    • TGIQ November 21, 2011 at 7:05 PM

      You raise some really good points here. I agree that the media’s portrayal of scientists is totally unrealistic (cool, but unrealistic). I suspect that, since the media plays a huge role in shaping and/or defining cultural norms, it probably has an effect on the average person’s perception of “science” and “scientists”. A student of mine (1st year undergrad) recently asked me if it was possible to be an entomologist without spending time in the lab or “doing boring stuff”. He basically envisioned himself running around outside and climbing trees all day. I explained that, unless you’re David Attenborogh, this would probably not be the case – there’s reading, lab work, analyses, publications, etc. to take care of too (although running around outside and climbing trees can definitely also be on the agenda). I bet his somewhat skewed vision of “myself as a scientist” came from these romanticized versions of scientists seen on TV.

  3. George Sims November 21, 2011 at 7:36 PM

    I agree wholeheartedly. I was, in high school, much the same as you were; however, I didn’t get my “AHA” moment until I was nearly 40. Now, at 60 and retired, I’m having lots of “science fun”, but wish I’d spent my working life doing something I loved, rather than tolerated.

  4. Ted C. MacRae November 22, 2011 at 10:46 AM

    An interesting discussion. I’m not sure I can add anything, as I pegged myself as a scientist when I was 5 and nobody ever questioned it. In school I was always the little science nerd.

    Hero scientists growing up? Mine was Spock!

    • TGIQ November 23, 2011 at 1:59 PM

      I don’t think I HAD a hero scientist growing up…I didn’t really know any. I also didn’t really know what I wanted to be when I grew up…not until my 20’s (late 20’s!). I have always had a wide variety of interests; it’s terribly hard for me to focus on one thing at a time (I call it “something shiny” syndrome.) Science, right now, seems to satisfy my need to be doing (and learning about) lots and lots of different things at the same time. It’s a good fit, but I think I had to grow into being comfortable with it. I always envied kids like you who knew at a very early age what they wanted to be – I struggled so much with this!

  5. George Sims November 22, 2011 at 12:32 PM

    You’re probably too young to remember “Watch Mr. Wizard”, with Don Herbert, beginning in 1951.

  6. Morgan Jackson November 22, 2011 at 1:49 PM

    You’re on a serious role with the awesome posts Geek (not that they weren’t awesome before… this isn’t coming out correctly… you rock!), and I totally agree with you here. Although I was always the science nerd like Ted, I grew up in a small town and had limited exposure to what I could do in an animal science field, pretty well assuming I had to be a vet or a farmer to work with animals on a daily basis! So, I went to school aiming for vets but was OK with farming as a back up if I needed to. My first year at university really opened my eyes to all the possibilities, and I promptly said good bye to the vet idea and headed down the road I’m on now! High school is a pretty horrible time and place for making the first decisions on what to do with your life, but it’s nice to know we all get a second (or third/fourth/etc) chance at it later on!

    • TGIQ November 23, 2011 at 2:02 PM

      Thank gawd for lots of chances, especially considering I didn’t really make up my mind until I was almost 30 years old! The interesting thing I’ve noticed, though, is that all of the various meanderings I’ve done in my life (different jobs, cities, etc.) have ultimately fed into and lead up to the place where I am today. I’m the sum of my experiences, good and bad. It’s pretty awesome! I’m glad my parents had the wherewithal to simply get me into post-secondary ed of some kind, even if I didn’t have a career path in mind. I, too, was amazed by the possibilities I encountered once I was IN school. I’ve often told younger people that, if it’s economically feasible at all, they should at least try a year of general arts or sciences or SOMETHING so they can have the experience and try out a bunch of different courses.

    • TGIQ November 23, 2011 at 2:08 PM

      Katie, those were VERY interesting links, thanks for sharing them! The drawings, I think, were especially revealing, and do relate strongly to the broader idea that people really don’t have a realistic image of “what a scientist is/does”. I find it especially interesting that girls were more likely to put scientists in the “other” category (i.e., by gender) – fascinating stuff!

  7. Bug Girl November 30, 2011 at 7:08 AM

    The sad thing is that the “draw a scientist” test has been around since the 70’s–you can trace it in the literature–but the things students draw remain unchanged. Crazy dude with beard in lab coat with beakers.

    I give this paper to my students–it seems to help
    (The importance of stupidity in scientific research)

    • TGIQ November 30, 2011 at 11:01 AM

      That’s a great article – a labmate of mine was passing it around last year (good timing, since I was in the throes of stressing out over my comprehensive exam). I wonder if these misconceptions will ever change?

  8. Pingback: What makes a “good” student? « The Bug Geek

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