Sunday, October 27, 2013

What is a Scientist?

What does a scientist look like?  It’s a simple question that most people can quickly answer.  I encourage you to think of a few words to describe a scientist before reading past this sentence.
As a formative assessment each week, many of the Education for Environment and Community (EEC) instructors ask that same question of the fourth and fifth graders we have the privilege to educate, and we give them time to draw their interpretation of a scientist in their field journals.  Here is what we frequently see: men, crazy hair, words like “mad”, white coats, mystery liquids with bubbles in beakers, and eye glasses.  Did you think of some of those too? 

How is it that all the students have the same image in their mind about what a scientist is though, and how can we change that view?  Developmental psychologist Jean Piaget would say the answer is through disequilibrium.  I had the opportunity to see this in action this past week while observing Kelvin, an EEC instructor.  He asked the students if they viewed themselves as scientists.  The team all responded in the affirmative, and then he asked them to describe a scientist.  The students immediately gave an expected stereotypical answer as described above.  Kelvin’s next question served to cause a disequilibrium that was truly amazing to watch.
                              “Well, if you’re scientists, where are your white coats?”

The question was followed by silence as the students struggled to find the connections between their previous statements.  There was no standard “this is what the teacher wants” kind of answer so they were forced to synthesize information into a new pathway, create a new understanding.  This was true learning, but the question remains of how did all the students already have a similar preconceived idea of a scientist?

We all move through life as part of a specific and identifiable community, sometimes moving fluidly between multiple.  Our chosen communities are often related to hobbies, socio-economic status, academic goals, chronological age, geographical location, and moral belief systems.   That is a lot of groups to mingle with, but what is the linking force that cements our status in those communities?  It is often the way we think and what we chose to think about. 

Socialization can be an amazing tool for expanding understanding of any topic, but socialization within the bubble of the same community built on thinking the same way is not going to cause disequilibrium.  Growth can come from understanding and appreciating the contributions, differences, and similarities present in other communities.  At the end of the day, we only have one Earth, and we all have to share it.  What simple question do you have a stereotypical answer to, and where can you find new meaning?


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