Scientists through the eyes of children

What does a child imagine when drawing a scientist? The answer depends on what they watch and read.

What do children think scientists’ work is like? And where do these ideas come from? Junqing Zhai of Zhejiang University and his colleagues at Nanyang Technological University decided to find out. In a recent study, they asked 266 children to draw scientists “doing science” and analyzed the youngsters’ sources of inspiration. We spoke with Zhai about the results.

ResearchGate: Why does it matter how children perceive scientists?

Junqing Zhai: The messages about science and scientists that children receive throughout their childhood years have a life-long impact on perceptions of scientists, attitudes about science, and interest in science in school. Ultimately, this all affects the likelihood that someone will pursue science-oriented occupations.

RG: How did you assess what children imagine when they think of scientists?

Zhai: We asked students to create drawings of “scientists doing science in real life” and adapted a coding schema from the famous Draw-A-Scientist-Test (DAST), which we modified based on the nature of data collected for this study. This included categories like hands-on work, group work, and other scientific actions (e.g., observing, investigating, inventing, and data recording). Next, we synthesized and coded the drawings according to their representations of stereotypes, grouping them into four categories:

Unrealistic - a “mad scientist” or scientist engaging in non-scientific work:











Realistic Chemist - includes only stereotypical elements such as a lab coat, glasses, beakers, flasks:










Realistic Other / Non-Chemist - an accurate depiction of a scientist that goes beyond the stereotyped elements in the “Realistic Chemist” category:

5 5 text












School-like – a scientist engaging in activities similar to what students do in science classrooms at school.

10 10 text












RG: What were the results?

Zhai: More than half of the students depicted a realistic chemist, someone wearing a white lab coat and mixing chemicals in a laboratory.

RG: What informs these perceptions?

Zhai: Books and magazines were key sources for students’ images of scientists. Looking at the full range of sources, we found that most of the cartoons children drew on for inspiration were intended for entertainment. On the other hand, TV shows, books, and magazines that informed children’s drawings were mostly media intended as science communication – popular science magazines, televised science documentaries, popular science books. Students who listed school and other science communication media as their source of inspiration were more likely to draw scientists in orthodox, realistic settings than those who obtained their inspirations from non-scientific sources.

RG: Were there gender differences?

Zhai: Girls were more likely to draw a realistic chemist, while boys were more likely to draw an unrealistic scientist. Boys were more likely than girls to list videogames and movies as sources of their images of a scientist.

RG: What can we do to give children a more realistic understanding of science?

Zhai: Our results suggest that popular media play a large role in shaping how children view scientists. Exposure to accurate portrayals of scientists at school was related to non-stereotyped drawings, as was consumption of science communication media, whether in the school environment or at home. On the other hand, watching and reading entertainment media correlates with students’ drawing of stereotypical mad scientists. Scientific organizations and other institutions that engage in science communication through popular media need to be more serious about their depictions of science and scientists. Parents and teachers may also wish to address the work of scientists with their children more explicitly.

Featured image courtesy of Martin Cron