What is a scientist? Changing girls’ perceptions 

Ask any child the question ‘What is a scientist?’ and the answer may surprise, delight or bewilder you, depending on their age and how well you know them! 

When I posed this question to some of our younger Junior School pupils recently, answers included: ‘they put candles on a cake’, ‘a crazy man who goes on computers’ and most common of all, ‘they make potions’. White coats and goggles were also mentioned quite a lot! 

Perhaps some of this confusion lies in the fact that they do not have a clear idea of what is meant by ‘science’. So I then explained that science is learning about everything in the world around us and scientists do this by observing, describing and experimenting. The word ‘experimenting’ prompted enthusiastic responses such as ‘I like test tubes’, ‘I’ve got a science kit and I do it with my daddy’ and ‘I made elephant’s toothpaste.’  

Science kits received as presents were popular with many of the girls that I spoke to and seem to be a great way of getting children interested in the subject, although the emphasis on mixing ‘chemicals’ to make ‘wow’ things happen means that they often equate science with chemistry, which is only one aspect of a very broad subject.  

Perhaps they are also influenced by what they see on television and online. If you carry out an internet search for images of scientists, you will find endless photographs of people in white coats working in sterile laboratories, mixing liquids or looking down microscopes. 

However, science isn’t only about working in a laboratory. Science is observing the weather, growing plants, comparing rocks, making electrical circuits, describing animal life cycles, classifying materials, testing magnets, learning about healthy eating, separating mixtures and much, much more.    

It is for this reason that Key Stage 2 pupils have their Science lessons in the Junior School Science Room, a deliberate choice of name to avoid the stereotype that science is something that only takes place in a laboratory whilst wearing special clothing to protect you from dangerous chemicals. 

Of course, my observations from talking to some of our girls are anecdotal rather than scientific, but they highlight the need to make sure that our pupils study a broad range of science topics. They also need to be explicitly taught about the links between their lessons and ‘real life’ situations, whilst being encouraged to retain their natural curiosity and ask lots of questions!

Junior School Science Coordinator