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Attitude Toward Science, Scientists

This material was originally created for On the Cutting Edge: Professional Development for Geoscience Faculty
and is replicated here as part of the SERC Pedagogic Service.

Initial Publication Date: April 10, 2008
Prajukti Bhattacharyya, University of Wisconsin - Whitewater
Course: Introduction to Earth Science
25-32 students
Students' negative attitudes toward science can be a surprisingly powerful barrier to learning. Addressing these attitudes up front may help students to overcome that barrier.

The Activity

I ask my students how many of them hate science and/or math. I usually get a significant show of hands. I then ask them to specify why they have such negative feelings about science in general. Sometimes a few students come up with reasons like they cannot understand abstract concepts. Whenever someone brings up a point like that, I address it directly and concisely: how we will use concrete examples and hands-on samples in earth science, or how we will talk about concrete observations and hypotheses based on those observations.

Then I ask the students what they think are the characteristics of a "scientist" and I draw a cartoon scientist on the board using their characteristics. Surprisingly, almost all the sections come up with a bald, middle aged man, unkempt and scruffy, wearing a lab coat and pocket protector, who has no life outside of his labs. At this point I compare myself with that cartoon picture and introduce myself as a real person with a variety of interests outside of science. I then ask the students where such negative stereotyping comes from and how their fear of science is for the most part due to such stereotyping of scientists.

Additional Information

I have found this activity to be a particularly effective ice breaker in my classes. Most of my students are non-science majors who need a science credit to fulfill a degree requirement. On the first day of class, most of them are apprehensive and during this activity they relax considerably. It gets students to talk to me and to each other. They realize that most of the other students are in the same boat as themselves. By drawing a cartoon on the board I get them to laugh in class, which goes a long way to establish a rapport between me and my students. I address their concerns directly, which shows them that I care about their learning and about them as individuals. It also gives me a chance to introduce myself as a person who loves her science but who also leads a full life.