A study has found that science stereotypes push primary school students away from studying STEM.
The study, conducted by the University of South Australia and the Australian Catholic University, that while many conventional stereotypes of science affect the career aspirations of young students, gender wasn’t as big a factor in their study.
University of South Australia professor and researcher Dr Stahl said that they interviewed 45 Queensland primary school students across various economically and geographically diverse schools, and while their answers were fuelled by stereotypes, the students did not see gender as such a defining factor for a career as a scientist.
“There are studies focussed on girls being under-represented in STEM subjects, we did expect gender to figure in a little bit, but it didn’t,” Dr Stahl said, as only two students in the study said a scientist was ‘usually a man.’
“The fact that most kids said science could be a career for a woman or a man, shows just how far we’ve come,” he said.
“But there’s still room to do more, especially as students talked about stereotypical images of scientists wearing white coats and protective goggles and doing lab-based experiments.”
The majority of students said they had no aspirations to be a scientist, with only 13 saying they would strongly consider a job as a scientist. Nearly half of students said they “did not like” science, and that it was “boring” or “weird”.
Dr Stahl said the results showed that students think the notion of science also “unusual”, “dangerous” and “challenging”, which are obstacles that still need tackling.
“Primary school is a time when kids are influenced by all sorts of stereotypes — through books, TV and movies,” Dr Stahl said.
“In the case of science, media often shows scientists to be eccentric men in white coats.”
The researchers concluded there is a lack of education in how diverse STEM industries have become.
“This raises implications for science teachers to unpick these stereotypes, adding something else to what they do as teachers.” Dr Stahl said.
The Australian government has launched the National STEM School Education Strategy 2016–2026, which aims to coordinate current activities and improve STEM education and professional development for teachers.
“It’s two steps forward, one step back — gender stereotypes may be in decline, but we still have a long way to go if we are to get children the role of a modern scientist.” Dr Stahl said.