How a visit to Fermilab changed kids' perceptions of what a scientist is, and who can be one


Never underestimate the power of the field trip. Turns out, visiting real scientists doing real science had a big impact on what one group of seventh graders thought scientists looked and acted like.

The kids drew and captioned pictures before and after their trip. One of the first things that struck me, flipping through these shots, was how much more hair the real scientists had. The "before" drawings look like something out of central casting—a lot of old white guys in lab coats, often hovering over beakers full of bubbling, green liquid. The "after" images become real people—men and women, of all races, with much lower rates of male pattern baldness. Apparently, the kids caught on to the basic idea behind the existence of the Luxuriant Flowing Hair Club for Scientists.

Also noteworthy: The way scientists became relateable to the kids, what seem to have previously thought of scientists as weird, crazy people that didn't do anything but work. Here's what a student named James said before:

When I think of a scientist I think of brainy and very weird people. I think of lots of bottles with chemicals in them. I think of explosions with chemicals. I think of tiny little disks with data information on them. I think of little gadgets that are used for things that I do not know what they are.

And after:

A scientist is a normal person. They have a life. Scientists are just like you. Scientists wear normal clothes and not big lab coats. Scientists have hobbies like baseball and volleyball and basketball. A scientist's job looks like a lot of fun.

(Via Kateryna Artyushkova)


  1. Wish that the mainstream media would do the same type of field trips. Can’t tell you how many times as a grad student we were asked to *look* more like a scientist ie., wear a lab coat. I watched a reporter get B roll of one of my profs in a lab coat (which he borrowed as he didn’t have one) peering in a microscope (which is absolutely lame as the work he did had nothing to do with looking in a microscope).

  2. Maybe showing kids what would happen if Brad Pit were a scientist would be beneficial too…

  3. If he isn’t a member yet, Steven Pinker should definitely join the Luxuriant Flowing Hair Club for Scientists.

  4. I managed the demonstration lab area for the third largest hands-on science museum in the country for four years. Think “Bill Nye”, but live, with 15 minute demonstrations presented twice an hour every hour we were open, 363 days a year. It was a huge blast!

    One thing I always fought very hard on was the issue of how “scientists” are presented. We had a variety of demonstrators on staff who represented a wide range of ages, genders and races, and as much as possible we tried to keep them dressed “normally”. They would don required safety equipment when necessary, but take it back off again when the experiment was over to emphasize their realness. I would regularly complain when our marketing department would create signs or brochures for our activities that featured the stereotypical “mad scientist” guy – socially awkward, male, white, and possessing an inate genius that normal people somehow lack.

    For me, the issue was one of a false summit – it is easy to get people to like science. Blow some stuff up, freeze stuff and smash it, make fires, etc. People will see how fun it looks, and say, “Science is AWESOME”. Many people see that reaction and think they’ve won, but you end up finding that the same people who think that science is awesome might still think that science isn’t something they can personally do and achieve.

    Getting over that false summit to the REAL goal – having people believe that science is a real part of their life, and something they can do, participate in, understand, and benefit from daily – requires breaking down the stereotypes about scientists, what they do, and what they look like.

    I’m glad to see that tours of Fermilab are doing that for kids – it is a subtle part of the process that escapes many of the “we need to make science more fun” campaigns.

  5. i am a scientist – i seek to understand me
    all of my impurities and evils yet unknown
    i am a journalist – i write to you to show you
    i am an incurable
    and nothing else behaves like me

    and i know what’s right
    but i’m losing sight
    of the clues for which i search and choose
    to abuse
    to just unlock my mind
    yeah, and just unlock my mind

  6. That’s weird, I think I took the same Fermilab tour when I was in 6th grade! My favorite picture has to be from Kierman, who’s “before” scientist promotes sponsors like a nerdy boxer, with web addresses on his clothes for “levi’”, “”, and “”. Classic.

  7. Scientist and Mathematicians are all perceived alike and it doesn’t seem to be getting much better. I’m a mathematics teacher and I cannot tell you how many parents come up to me and FREELY admit, “I SUCK AT MATH!!!” or “I HATE MATH!!”, blah, blah, blah…The general population has no problem admitting to such ineptitude, but you NEVER hear a parent (or anyone else for that matter) admit (freely), “I SUCK AT READING!!!” or “I HATE TO READ!!!”

    Long story short, the “NERD” stigma attached to someone being good at Math or Science is quite common and accepted by most people.

    1. Have you considered that simply more people suck at and hate math than reading?

      I say this as someone who both sucks at and hates math, but does just fine at reading. I have had people tell me they don’t like to read, too, by the way. I feel sorry for them.


      I have also noticed how the eyesight of many of the scientists improved in the second drawings :p

      1. “Have you considered that simply more people suck at and hate math than reading? ”

        Personally, I don’t know if this is true, but I think the way math is taught is what causes a lot of that trouble. I didn’t think I was “good at” math until I had a good teacher. I think a lot of people are the same way and never get that good teacher.

        Anyway, these are pretty adorable.

        1. What about people who are good at math & hate it? I’m good at math but I suck at arithmetic, so I pretty much hate it. The only thing even related to math I tend to do any more is logic problems.

  8. I am a Ph.D. Chemist (Kansas State University, 1966), and during my career with the Dow Chemical Company I put on chemical magic shows for 5-th graders at the local schools. The idea was to amaze the students and then explain how the tricks work by explaining the science involved. I told them that the understanding of the world around them that studying science provides, allows them to do amazing things.

    The tricks involved having the group mentally turn water into ink; stuffing 30 3 ft long sausage balloons into a thermos of liquid nitrogen, extracting them with tongs, and watching them blow up again; an attention solution that changed from blue to clear when someone was not paying attention and then turned blue again upon shaking, …

    There was a Q & A session afterward which allowed me to interact with them. They were generally interested and excited.

    If you are a teacher reading this, contact your local section of the American Chemical Society to see if they can arrange for something like this.

  9. Seriously guys, just set up an RSS feed from MeFi to the BB front page, it would be easier and you wouldn’t miss as much good stuff.

  10. This makes a lot of sense, you have to teach kids at a young age that being a “nerd” leads to a fun life, but being “famous” actually means waiting tables.

  11. What happened to the stereotype that scientists have long crazy hair like Albert Einstein and Doc Brown?

  12. I love how the simple fact of seeing scientists wearing striped shirts made such an impact on how the kids saw them.

  13. The “before” description of a scientist sounds much more awesome than the “after” description.

    explosions with chemicals >> volleyball

    1. Lab coats are hot… and I don’t mean “Wow, she’s hot!”… I mean “Can we get a fan in here?” hot…

  14. Mainstream media and the general public’s misconceptions are not restricted to scientists.

    The majority think there are only two jobs in TV and film: Cameraman and Director, almost always men. Even TV shows and Films perpetuate these myths.

    To be fair, many journalists I have worked with do try to avoid stereotypes. It is often (but not always) met with resistance from older/slower lifeforms higher up the food chain. Darwinism can work backwards in my field.

    P.S. I got into TV based on a sixth grade field trip.

  15. I recall listening to some right-wing blow-hard on AM radio going off about how he “didn’t believe these ivory tower eggheads talking about global warming. . . these scientists don’t live in the real world. . .” etc. As he was saying this I was driving past the MIT campus in Cambridge MA, and just shaking my head– seems he had the same stereotypical view of scientists as a bunch of schoolchildren.

  16. well, whenever I was asked to be a model in the club by photographer or whenever random guys tried to hit on me, the one thing I did to get rid of them is to claim my true identity–a scientist. That worked most of the time, if didn’t work, I then explained to them what I study–prostate cancer. And I have my last resort–tell them the chances of them getting some sort of tumor in their prostate by the age of 75 is 85%. Yeah…I’m a nerd…

  17. I’m a scientist and when I’m in the lab I wear a lab coat, but I wear it because I don’t like getting chemicals on my clothes.

    Also my clothes are not normal, they are AWESOME. :)

  18. oh, you want to talk about negative stereotypes of professions? try being a CPA! (for the record, i’m a 43 year-old female with long wavy blonde hair, green eyes, no glasses, 5’7″, 135 lbs. And i don’t do taxes either)

  19. CSI, Bones,… I was starting to complain that the (TV) lab person has to be some quirky goofball. Yeah, my wife watches those, not I…

    brooklyntwang: Did you feel the power? “Young man, DON’T TOUCH THAT! It’s. Ve-ry. Delikit. Equipment.”

  20. The lab coat/vs non lab coat issue is really one of experimentalists vs. theoreticians. Experimentalists may spill dangerous things on themselves. At worst, theoreticians may stain their clothes with coffee.

  21. The ‘after’ drawings are much better, but I prefer most of the ‘before’ descriptions. That might be because they’re selectively quoted though.

    A scientist is someone who might also enjoy racketball and a good salad? I guess, but that could just as easily be used to describe a politician, a bricklayer or even a blogger.

  22. Scientists aren’t quiet and reclusive, either!

    In fact, once you get them talking about their experiments, your biggest problem will be getting them to stop talking about it.

    It really does astound me that science is on such a decline here in the US, because I can point at pretty much anything here at fermilab (I’ve worked IT here for several years), ask a physicist “what’s that for?” and get a 30 minute description of the function and why it’s important.

    Everyone should have access to a large research laboratory like fermilab, we’d be much better off as a country for it.

  23. I thought these were cute, but I was a little sad to see that only 10% of the ‘before’ drawings were of women.

  24. Well thats just priceless actually, whats interesting is these children had an iron clad stereotype of scientists, but did not or were not ever told that they themselves were scientists. A childs curiosity, rather curiosity in general is what propels most of us. Though there are just as many scientists that fit the stereotype. I sometiimes walk around the campus where my laboratory is, and well yeah….we are a strange bunch in our own right. Then again, this comes from a tattooed Entomologist who runs feverish while staring at flies! usag

  25. Engineers are one of the most misunderstood and mischaracterized of all professions thanks to Hollyweird stereotypes. And that’s all I’m saying on this subject.

  26. Okay, I am a scientist and I work at Los Alamos National Laboratory, so I think I have a pretty good sample of scientists to generalize from. And in my opinion, scientists are not normal people. Yes, they are normal in the sense that they wear clothes they bought at the store, they have hobbies, they put their pants on one leg at a time, etc., which might be surprising enough for a kid. But really, most of them are pretty peculiar compared to the average person. They tend to be somewhat arrogant, obsessive about their work, and to carry their obsessiveness into their hobbies. They don’t just go biking, or play the banjo, they are full-on bicycle geeks and banjo geeks. Whether they are male, female, people of color, christian or atheist, they tend to share this personality type. And I say this with all affection for scientists, and I include myself in all of this. Why would anyone expect scientists to be normal people? Why does science need to be perceived as normal for people to go into it? I don’t think scientists were perceived as normal in the 1950s, but they were all over popular culture, and kids wanted to be like them. Science tends to emphasize certain personality traits and competences that are not necessarily widespread in the general population. Why can’t scientists just be geeky, or cool, or interesting, or weird? Normal is boring. So I just don’t get why we need scientists to be normal in order to attract people to science.

  27. I’m sorry, I saw all the drawings and thought none of these kids will be sketch artists…anyway this goes to show that children need to read more, media portrays scientist in a not very flattering fashion. I once wanted to be a rocket scientist and I knew that scientist had lives outside of work.

  28. In college I was very active in the physics club, and have spend the past few years doing “Physics Magic Shows” to local schools. I love when kids can see science in a way they never thought of it before. Science can be cool and fun in the same way that scientists are just regular people.

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