A white lab coat. An unsmiling expression. Thick glasses and unkempt hair. In one hand, a device replete with dials and gauges; in the other, a beaker bubbling over with a toxic-looking liquid.
This image, which owes more to the movies than to the laboratory, is nevertheless what many students think of when they hear the word “scientist.” It shows up with striking regularity, for example, in the drawings made by a class of seventh graders from Illinois who were asked their impressions of the scientific profession. The captions underneath their pictures tell the same story: “When I think of a scientist I think of brainy and very weird people,” wrote a boy named James. “I think of lots of bottles with chemicals . . . I think of little gadgets that are used for things that I do not know what they are.” There’s a lot that students don’t know about scientists, an information gap that must be filled if they’re to imagine a future in science for themselves. Addressing the country’s shortfall of students in the STEM disciplines (science, engineering, technology and mathematics) begins with persuading students that scientists are people, too.