Friday, June 27, 2008

Science Performance

Last year, I wrote about a team of Chemistry professors and students who did a show at my daughter's school. This year it was a group of Physicists, and they did a similarly spectacular job of entertaining and teaching.

Just when I think I can no longer be entertained by seeing a banana or a balloon immersed in liquid nitrogen, I see one of these shows and am amazed. I am not amazed by the experiment itself (though fortunately the kids are), but by the energy and charisma of the scientists and the way that they explain things in a simple, clear, interesting, and fun way. The outreach work that these scientists do is extremely important.

I have the greatest respect and admiration for scientists who 'perform' for school kids and others, spreading the word that science is fun and interesting and blasting apart the stereotype that all scientists are quiet, strange men who never leave their labs.

The chemist who did the show last year is a woman (though not a full-time professor). This year, the lead scientist was a male associate professor, but he brought a group of students, including one female student. I am glad that the kids who saw both shows will have seen both men and women being Scientists, and, with all due respect to the women who do this important work, I am glad that elementary school outreach programs are not entirely the domain of part-time female adjuncts. My cynical bias, which arises in part because I happen to have my GENDER LENSES on (again), is that this type of activity will only be valued if Male Science Professors are active participants as well.

The essential element of putting on a successful science show for kids (or anyone) is to have the right personality and the ability to explain the science clearly. I do not have the personality or voice volume for this kind of high-energy science outreach. I have on occasion given short talks or told a story to an elementary school class, but these tend to be low-key events involving discussion, conversation, and only occasional goofiness.

I don't do these school visits to get outreach points on my annual report -- talking to kids about science has its own rewards, and I of course especially like visiting my daughter's class and school. It's a good thing that I don't need the 'credit', though, because volunteering at a school is something that moms are just expected to do. When my husband visits the school, he is treated like a celebrity who is doing something very special -- taking time out from his busy day of important work.

Even so, whether the scientist is low-key me, an exotic dad, or a charismatic physicist playing with dry ice in the gym, I think kids should see and get to know scientists and Science.


Anonymous said...

Who needs charisma when you have elemental lamps and diffraction gratings? :-)


You make several good points.

Anonymous said...

For our last open day I was given the liquid nitrogen stand. I managed to get even the grown-ups interested in the balloon freezing part - but this may be as my student job was making balloon animals, and there was a choice of which animal to freeze :). It was fun!

Anonymous said...

When my husband visits the school, he is treated like a celebrity who is doing something very special -- taking time out from his busy day of important work.

This is a really important observation, because it is the little shit like this that asshole fuckwit apologists for male privilege will say is meaningless or just "anecdotal" that cumulatively results in gender inequity in science.

Shriram Krishnamurthi said...

One of the great traditions of Victorian science was the public demonstration. For sure, this was often indistinguishable from a freak-show, and the level of “science” would have been quite shallow (in the bang, snap, crackle, and pop family). But it did draw in the crowds, and some of the leading scientists of the day (like Faraday) were known for their demonstration abilities. Indeed, The Royal Society has a Faraday Prize to reward “excellence in communicating science”. Unfortunately, we've given up this sense of wonder for the spectacle and awe of trying to guess the winner of the next reality show. Science: it's the Ultimate Reality Show!

EliRabett said...

You don't need a grating, a CD will do, and mercury and sodium street lamps and fluorescent lights are useful elemental lamps:)

Here are some nice examples

Anonymous said...

I was a bit unhappy when we took our daughter to the local Children's Museum: they had a science show, and the person leading the show was a man wearing a white coat and with a "funny hair" wig. I'm sure it was supposed to be fun, and definitely I'm just picking a nit: but do we have to always reinforce the stereotype that scientists are folks with crazy hair who wear white coats? Perhaps I'm sensitized because I just read David Anderegg's book "Nerds", but why will kids want to become scientists if they think scientists are nerdy folks with bad hair?

I'm not sure if I was being polite or being too meek, but I didn't say anything about it to anybody at the museum.

To be more on topic: I agree with FSP's point that scientists of all genders should do this sort of outreach. (And perhaps both scientists with strange hair and scientists with normal hair.)

Anonymous said...

Kids definitely notice gender. I went to a middle school to do a talk about forest ecology, invited by a former student who was a student teacher there. I walked into the room, and the first thing I heard was "Dr. Smith is a GIRL?!?" (not my real name) in a surprised voice from the back of the room.

Of course, they also were amazed that I did not have brown pants. Apparently all forest ecologists wear brown pants. (Maybe they are confused with forest rangers?)

So I was pleased that at least if they learned nothing else, they now know that you can be female and you don't have to wear brown pants to be a scientist in my field.

Arlenna said...

I love doing this kind of thing, I've done it with an outreach group in my city for the last five years. Seeing inner city middle school girls FREAK THE F' OUT about pennies getting shiny in acetic acid/salt, or about glue turning gelly and slimy, is hilarious and awesome. They are so funny and it is so rewarding to see the lights turning on and connections being made in their heads.

I am loud and goofy and have a theatrical background, plus one of my favorite things to do it translate science to non-scientists, so it suits my personality. But there's a role for the more low-key but in depth version of this stuff too that works very well as a separate type of experience for kids--they kind of need both, especially if they are particularly precocious then the flashy simplistic version can bore them after they have figured it out.

Becca said...

@ PP, I get what you're saying (and agree), but the part of me that remembers being a kid really wants to say...
Nerdy kids with funny hair need someone to look up to!

Anonymous said...

Of course, they also were amazed that I did not have brown pants. Apparently all forest ecologists wear brown pants.

Hilarious. When I do outreach I try to wear a skirt or earrings or something at least a little girly, just to try to counteract that "man with crazy hair and lab coat" image of scientists.

(By the way, I particularly love it when astronomers are depicted this way. What do they think, we're worried about spilling starlight on our clothes?)

Anonymous said...

My scientist's mind feels compelled to point out that there has actually been a lot of research done on children's perceptions of scientists, and how they are affected by the teachers, the media, and, yes, actual scientists visiting classrooms.

At least one study found that when female scientists do outreach at the elementary level, students often do not understand or believe that these women are scientists. Apparently the concept of female scientists runs so contrary to these children's deep stereotypes that they are unable to perceive it. If they are asked afterwards, they will often categorize the visitor as a teacher, despite having been told that she was a scientist. (The study is accessible here: )

Wearing a lab coat puts you less at odds with their stereotype and I have been told it can be helpful helpful in convincing 8-year-olds that you truly are both a woman and a scientist.

On the upside, other research has concluded that children's perceptions of scientists have become more positive in recent years and have expanded to include women. The authors of the study credited this trend to children's science television programs such as Bill Nye, the Science Guy and "adult" programs like CSI that portray women as equals in scientific/technical jobs. (

Anonymous said...

Wow, that first study you cited was really interesting (and kind of depressing).

When questioned about why the visiting women could not be scientists,
students responded that the visitors did not show certain characteristics. One
characteristic mentioned by many of the students was wearing a white lab coat: ”(Scientists) have on these big white coats”; “She would be dressed in science suits
.. .”, “Like white, scientists would be in a long white coat with, um, glasses to
protect their eyes . . . and gloves”; “She didn’t have on a white suit. They would
have a white suit”; ‘’No, because in movies I see scientists with long white coats
on”; and “They didn’t have like their jacket.” Other characteristics mentioned
were glasses, gray hair, and looking old.

I guess my question would be the same one raised in the conclusions of the article: "Must we cater to stereotypes in order to challenge students to confront them?" Are there maybe more explicit ways we can discuss these issues with elementary students? (I imagine the topic of stereotyping is very relevant to students at this level.) It'd be great if we could figure out how to inspire these kids and counteract the pervasive cultural images without resorting to dressing up like mad scientists ourselves.

Anonymous said...

...Speaking of "pervasive cultural images."

A few years ago - 1996 to be exact - the American Statistical Association tried an outreach program at their annual meeting in Chicago. The Chicago Tribune reported on it with the headline "Statisticians take calculated risk trying to shed nerd image". The trib reported that "Bored students repeatedly interrupted the presentations with wisecracks and laughter."

(You can find this quote at

The original article in the trib also included a quote from one kid who asked the presenter "Why are you so weird."

Anyway, if you can get kids interested in your branch of science by freezing balloons or working with pennies consider yourself lucky. Some people don't even have that much to work with.

Doctor Pion said...

It even works with those already interested in the field.

The first step in building a "coil gun" (since a 100 MJ rail gun is out of reach of the student group I was mentoring) is taking apart a disposable camera to get at the flash mechanism. Its not easy, since you have to remove the protective sleeve with the "shock hazard inside" message - what an acquaintance refers to as "warning or challenge". Anyway, I pointed out the distinctive shape of the capacitor and then used a small screwdriver to "crowbar" it, just in case.

The result (which included pits etched on the screwdriver) was more impressive than most demos I do in class! I think I have a new demo for class ....

Anonymous said...

One of the profs at my school does a number of outreach programs, during some of which he brings middle school children to our university at which time we (the undergrads in the department) seize the opportunity to try to convert as many of them into future physicists as possible. Liquid nitrogen fascinates them (and us too sometimes...) especially when we make things go boom (film canisters etc.) Though, if we get hit with the cap or accidentally sit in a bowl of the nitrogen, the kids usually get a pretty good kick out of that too. Then we seal the deal with liquid nitrogen ice cream and frozen marshmellows :) I like to think we've converted a few of them to the dark side of science :)

honu-girl said...

@ a physicist I understand your frustration with the crazy hair and lab coat - note that not all children's museums/science centers do that. Both museums I've worked at did not do that, except for the occasional (obvious) farcical play.

One of my favorite outreach experiences occurred while hugely pregnant with my first child. I was doing a program in a classroom on space exploration, and one of the girls came up to me afterward to ask "Will you be having your baby at the ISS?"

Sadly, I don't get to do as much outreach now that I'm out of the museum field. But I do it whenever I can, and with my husband (who is in a similar field) and often try to incorporate my kids somehow. The looks that cross some of the kids' faces as they realize you can have a family AND be a scientist? Priceless.

Pagan Topologist said...

OK, I wonder if you have any ideas as to how to encourage more women to continue with their studies. In my department (Mathematics) we have more female graduate students than male ones. Nevertheless, most of these students stop after a Master's degree. I have supervised 8 Ph. D. dissertations. Only three were by women. I am male, but I spend a lot of time urging female students to continue beyond an M. S. degree. The numbers show that I am rarely successful. My colleagues are also rarely successful.

I do often get undergraduate women to consider grad study in mathematics. I have not been able to consistently follow up on how well they do.