Sharing the life of a learning scientist with primary school children

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March 2020

As part of British Science Week, Andrew Manches and I were invited to talk about what it is like to be a scientist. On Thursday 12th March, we visited groups of P3 students (8-9-year-olds) in a local primary school. The aim of the visit was to show children there are different paths into science, different kinds of scientist jobs and science-related careers. With this in mind, we talked to them about being learning scientists.

A learning scientist is someone who is interested in researching how learning happens, how it can be improved, and then how to apply that in schools and other learning environments. Learning scientists can come from many different backgrounds: school teaching, neuroscience, economics, cognitive psychology, philosophy (and more), and it is this diversity of backgrounds that gives learning sciences a broader perspective of what could be influencing learning.

We wanted to understand how children view and think about scientists, and if they already had any  stereotypes about scientists. So, we asked them questions as if scientists were this weird specimen, for example, where do scientists come from? What do they look like? What do they eat? and used their answers as an opportunity to confirm if their answers were true for us, allowing the children to see that individual scientists are all different from each other, just like other humans. Children recognised scientists can come from different parts of the world, mentioning China as an example.  To elaborate on this, Andrew and I talked about where we come from (England and Mexico) but are living in Scotland.

As slightly expected, their answers about what a scientist looks like pointed overwhelmingly to a person wearing a white-coat, white-trousers, and big protective glasses along with crazy hair. Not surprisingly the specific example often named was Albert Einstein. We pointed out the differences between the picture they described and what we looked like, which was very different (except for my big glasses) and how only some scientists wear lab coats but others (like us) do not need to. The best answers came when we asked about what type of food do scientists like to eat, getting different sorts of answers, ranging from fruit, sandwiches and sausage rolls, to which Andrew and I agreed or disagreed (depending on our preferences) to show that scientists are as normal as any other person.

After introducing the “scientist specimen” to the children, and hopefully help them understand that scientists are just like regular people, we shared our different paths to become scientists and what we do in our jobs as learning scientists. Talking about our paths to becoming (learning) scientists helped exemplify how paths can differ from one another. For example,  Andrew had been a primary teacher in a school just like theirs before working at a university, whereas I came from a very academic focused cognitive neuroscience and psychological background, yet both of these paths led to us becoming interested in understanding how children think and learn.

We explained that as learning scientists we are interested in how children learn, and the best way to find out was asking them, and now we had an opportunity to do it! We asked what they would normally do when they had to think or when they were learning. The answers were amazing and included children acting them out. Some said they had to roll their eyes up as if trying to see their brains, others said they used a thinking cap, while other children demonstrated how they would place their fingers on their chin and concentrate.

Our next activity was playing a game of “STEM Charades” where children had to get their class to guess a science word using speech and gestures. The game seemed very successful with both children and teachers, who were particularly excited about the resource this game would be for learning in class. It was interesting to see how different the children played the game, since they could use both their words and their bodies to explain a concept. Some children decided to use only speech to describe a concept, while others used only gestures, which took longer for the class to guess correctly because they needed to keep providing clues to help the group guess.  It was when children combined both words and gestures that they were faster in getting the class to guess.

During the game children became more aware of how we use gestures constantly, how sometimes we don’t notice we use our hands and arms to communicate while other times we do it with intention. This game provided a way for us to explain how the Move2Learn team use gestures to find out about how children think and learn, and use this knowledge to improve the way we design science exhibits and also how we communicate with children.

Our closing remarks focused on the perks of being a scientist: making toys, asking lots of different questions, getting to work whenever we wanted and visiting museums. We revisited the question of what a scientist looks like, with the final remark that they can look like anyone really, and how each child has the capacity to become a scientist if they want to. 

One of the best parts was answering children’s questions about scientists, they had really good ones, such as:

  • What are the steps scientists follow in their jobs?
  • What does it feel like to be a scientist?
  • What does a scientist need to do to be a scientist?
  • What path do they need to take if they also want to develop toys?
  • How often do we do research in a museum?

These questions showed children had started thinking about what it could be like being a scientist in real life, and understanding that they too could be a scientist if they wanted, showing curiosity in what steps could be needed to achieve this goal.

Doing this talk made us more aware of how important it is to talk to children, to young people, to teachers and others through public engagement activities, about what it means to be a scientist, and the many different types of scientists. Particularly for those children and adults who are less exposed to this. It helped us reflect on how we have a shared responsibility of making the term and job of scientist not only more approachable to other people, but also how it can be an easier career than is often believed. Especially because the many stereotypes around it can keep both children and young people from believing they can become a scientist if they want.

It also reminded us of the value there can be in showing students different kinds of science and how they are all valid and contribute to our knowledge of the world but most importantly, to see a diversity of people represented in the role of scientists (and all their shapes, looks and outfits). Hopefully, talking about STEM in a more positive and relatable light could encourage more children and young people into the field, as well as helping adults to approach it with more confidence.

– Alexia Revueltas Roux

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