This is just awesome. It’s a bunch of written descriptions and drawings that seventh graders made before and after a visit to Fermilab.
I think that it really does show how pop culture has, in a way, poisoned the profession for a lot of the population. If you look at the before pictures and descriptions, it’s all very classic stuff. Scientists are uber smart. Scientists are a little crazy. Scientists don’t have hobbies. And on, and on. It all very much sticks to the “mad scientist” archetype that still gets a lot of play, and I think that powerful archetype ultimately discourages interest in science as a career. A lot of kids probably look at that and think that they’re not smart enough to be a scientist, or that they wouldn’t want that kind of career because they like doing other things and don’t want to live in a lab.
I’ve seen this sort of perceptual shift occasionally myself, when I’ve worked with some younger kids who are a bit shocked that I’m a geologist and I look (sort of) normal. One thing that always surprises me is the sort of questions the kids ask. Sometimes they’re about geology. But some times, the questions are surprisingly personal – the kids want to know if I’m married, or if I have pets, or how old I am. However, there’s an up side to that – once someone learns that we’re real people, it changes the perception of the career path. So instead of “I’m not smart enough,” maybe a kid could think, “well, I think bugs are cool, maybe I could be an entomologist.”
I also hope that it’s a good dose of reality that can help kids learn to think critically about what they see on television or other media. If one stereotype is proven false, it might be a jumping off point for re-examining a lot of the stereotypes that are prevalent in both media and culture.
Anyway, I think that this really shows the importance of outreach. It’s not something that everyone has the time for, but if you do it’s a rewarding experience. One thing that I noticed is several of the kids have very similar “before” and “after” drawings and descriptions – I’d be willing to bet that these are the kids who either personally know scientists (such as having one in the family) or are already deeply interested in science themselves. It would just be great if all kids had the opportunity to get to know a working scientist, if only briefly. And it’s a small but satisfying victory to see the gears shift a bit in someone’s mind, or to hear things like, “girls can be scientists” or “scientists wear t-shirts!”