I’ve been thinking a lot about science and younger students lately for two reasons. The first being that my adviser asked for my input on selecting a high school student that he and I will be mentoring this summer. The second is that the high school senior who worked with us last summer was a finalist for this year’s Intel Science Talent Search and I spent yesterday eagerly awaiting the ultimate results of the competition.
Students getting an opportunity to excel in science depends on a lot of factors. Many are socioeconomic. Others come from peer interactions and the public perception of scientists. Access to good teachers and role models (or the lack thereof). I often spend a lot of time considering both the educational and public interactions that students have with scientists because this is where I currently feel like I can make the biggest dent. My ideas are usually focused on changing perspectives of who can do science and making scientific subjects engaging. Today, a conversation with my adviser got me thinking of something else I want to add to this in the future.
I want students to be able to see how much most individual scientists don’t know.
Juli, our wonderful high school student and Intel finalist (about whom I can’t say enough good things), got a chance to say a little something about her views on science last night at the Intel competition’s awards dinner. I didn’t know you could watch the whole ceremony so I didn’t get a chance to, but my adviser, Matt, paraphrased her. Matt mentioned that Juli was the only one out of 40 finalists to mention women and girls in STEM (Hooray for that…I’ve taught her well!). She said that when it comes to science one problem she has noticed is that guys in her classes always act like they know everything while girls do not. This negatively affects girls because this makes them feel not as intelligent as the guys in these classes, even if the guys are just posturing. I believe she put it something like “Guys will always act like they know more, even if they don’t.”
My adviser also mentioned that he sees this attitude all the time in the honors level college physics courses he took. He mentioned that Juli (who is in high school) was his best student by far, but never acted like it. But the guys who were struggling in his class were more than happy to tell their peers how easy they found the most recent homework.
This not only contributes to the perception that those who succeed at science are men who know everything, but also can make participating in science courses something girls avoid, rather than get excited about. Even if they do well on coursework, the perception that the guys in their class know it all or don’t have to put in effort can be very demoralizing. This is especially true for younger students, who haven’t necessarily gained confidence in their academic abilities because they are constantly being tested and pushed to achieve more. This leads them to lack confidence in their intelligence, which is discouraging not only in terms of science, but to learning as a whole.
Also, along the way, I have learned a lot of life lessons that I didn’t realize until way after high school. They have been about things like the importance of grades, making priorities that achieve a happy work/career/life balance, and being understanding strengths and weaknesses and working on improving both through effort.
The last one on the list is one that I think is invaluable to share with younger students.
I am the first person to admit that I am far from the world’s smartest physicist. My background is somewhat non-traditional so I didn’t get as much math and quantum mechanics as I should have before grad school. I also am pretty terrible when it comes to coding. These are some of my biggest weaknesses as a physicist, but when it comes to addressing them, I don’t sit silently and feel bad about it and I don’t go the other route and pretend that I know everything about them. No…I make an accurate assessment of what I don’t know, and when I find that I do need to use those concepts, I teach myself. Or I go to my adviser or a peer and I ask them for help. I put in the effort I need to understand unfamiliar topics.
Younger students need to understand that scientists do this sort of thing all the time. It’s why we read papers and textbooks and ask colleagues to help us understand areas out of our expertise. But when they see their peers bragging about how easy homework or a test was, they don’t get an appreciation that most of us succeed through hard work, not by breezing through classes.
This is especially true for younger girls who are inundated all the time with the message that if you have to work to understand it, you aren’t as smart as the guys in your class. They need to see that, for the most part, the guys in their classes are being young and cocky and are usually posturing rather than truly understanding. And when they understand this, hopefully they won’t be left questioning their intelligence and can be more confidence in exploring any interest in science they may have.