Monday, April 14, 2014

What is a scientist?

"What does a scientist look like to you?"

Analysing Castle Rock, Antarctica
Instinctively, I picture a geeky, white lab coat guy, before I draw on my own experience of being a scientist in Antarctica. It's then, that I start to overcome the stereotype and think about adventurers braving the elements to make observations and gather data or specimens. 
The Te Toi Tupu science facilitators asked my PLD group the same question.  Majority, if not all of the teachers described Albert Einstein and, sadly, the same picture is imprinted in google images too. It's, almost, expected that when students are asked the same question, they will described a male with white hair, glasses, lab coat and potions, and they do.  It's hardly surprising when we think of historical scientists as Bell, Newton and Franklin and we watch movies with characters like Q from James Bond, Doc from Back to the Future and Victor Frankenstein. All this information goes towards supporting our impression of a scientist.
So, what does a scientist look like? Well, like you and me! It's vital students recognise this in themselves too, so they are able to grow into scientifically literate citizens.
"In science, students explore how both the natural physical world and science itself work, so that they can participate as critical, informed and responsible citizens in a society in which science plays a significant role." (NZC, 2007, p.17)

Internationally, science educators have identified 3 domains that are necessary for developing scientific literacy (Bell, 2007):

  • A body of knowledge
  • A set of processes
  • A way of knowing
Student's perception of the world changing
'A way of knowing" is less familiar than the first two, but addresses the Nature of Science and is the area I'm most passionate about. It's here that we recognise science ideas as constantly evolving when new evidence comes to light and it's these ideas that bring change. "Science is a way of investigating, understanding, and explaining our natural, physical world and the wider universe, It involves generating and testing ideas, gathering evidence - including making observations, carrying out investigations and modeling, and communicating with others - in order to develop scientific knowledge, understanding and explanations. Scientific progress comes from logical, systematic work and from creative insight, built on a foundation of respect for evidence. Different cultures and periods of history have contributed to the development of science." (NZC, 2007, p28)
By providing students with experiences and then opportunity to reflect and discuss those experiences, we, potentially, influence their values and change their belief systems about the world. With the way information is communicated nowadays, it's important students have the Nature of Science skills and understandings to be able to critique and form their own opinions and make informed decisions, at the very least. However, through the Nature of Science, students can go further and explore, design and create, leading to new innovations and collaborating to solve some of the world's complex problems. A fantastic TEDTalk 'Paper beats Plastic? How to rethink environmental folklore' provides a context for this thinking.
Field Trip to Gisborne Observatory
When we are teaching the Nature of Science, it's important to recognise and acknowledge the backgrounds of individual students and what they bring to the discussion and how this can influence values and belief systems, even your own, if you are open-minded and actively involved in the process of ako.
A year ago I had a student in my class who has Aspergers. While watching the devastation of 2013 Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, I was drawing on students' empathy so they could relate to what the people of the Philippines must have been experiencing. The student with Aspergers had limited ability to empathise and rather than being tied up with emotion, started looking at solutions.  He saw the amount of rubble and timber and began
Performing Tāne me te Whānau Mārama
suggesting ways it could be reused.  I accepted his contribution, but was taken back as I was still sympathising for the people and thought it too soon to be thinking that way.  It was only when I reflected on the discussion that I could see the insight and intelligence this student had around science and sustainability.  I wondered how may times I had ignored what a student was saying because I didn't understand or it wasn't aligned with my way of thinking due to my own background.
Planting trees during Matariki
The same year I was fortunate to go to a Te Toi Tupu Primary Science Hui.  I heard Dr Daniel Hikuroa speak about science and indigenous knowledge. He spoke about teaching using an inquiry driven approach, which offered support systems, provided a relevant context, explored beliefs, methods, criteria for validity and systems for rationality. He suggested an approach investigate Mātauranga Māori and include Māori language. One topic I explore regularly with students is Matariki and during this time of celebration, we look at biodynamics, astronomy, and ocean cycles in relation to science and Māori perspectives. In a multicultural classroom I extend this to all cultures and allow students to be the teacher (kaiako). I've had students from Japan share their knowledge of the constellation Subaru, which is the same constellation as Matariki
Students identify ways Maui was a scientist
Hikuroa posed the question 'Was Maui a scientist?' Through exploration of the legends the audience acknowledged Maui to be curious, creative, challenging and mischievous.  All the elements of a great scientist. Hikuroa stated that it was important that when students think scientist, they think Maui, broadening their understanding of a the term 'scientist'. With this new insight Maui became one of my class' science role models.
When looking at the future of science I hope we can overcome the geeky, white lab coat, guy stereotype and start seeing ourselves as scientists and, as teachers, we open our students' eyes to the Nature of Science, and support them to come forward with their ideas. I look forward to seeing a generation of people who think critically and work together to tackle our world's complex problems and produce better systems. 


  1. This is why we DON'T wear white lab coats during our science shows. We are constantly telling kids that we are all scientists :) Love your blog

    1. Thanks for your kind words, and great to hear you avoid the white lab coats!