Kindergarten Science Outreach and Identity Project Showcased at Moss Arts Center

This photo shows 7 women standing on a stage. All are wearing medical-type masks that cover their mouths and noses.
Center for Educational Networks and Impacts associate director Phyllis Newbill introduces Carrie Kroehler, Khanh To, Abby Lewis, Vanessa Diaz, Jenny Appiah-Kubi (barely visible), and Amber Wendler at the September 10 ICAT Play Date. Photo from @VtechmeetsPaleo.

Can you explain your work to a 5-year-old?

What do you see when someone asks you to picture a scientist?

How do you think children respond when someone prompts them to draw a scientist?

These were among the questions addressed at the September 10 ICAT (Institute for Creativity, Arts, and Technology) Play Date in the Cube at the Moss Arts Center during a presentation by graduate students Abby Lewis, Khanh To, Jenny Appiah-Kubi, and Amber Wendler; psychology faculty member Vanessa Diaz; and Center for Communicating Science associate director Carrie Kroehler.

The Draw-a-Scientist prompt has been used by researchers for more than 50 years and in nearly 80 studies to study U.S. children’s gender-and-science stereotypes. While children’s depictions of scientists have become more gender diverse over the past five decades, children are still more likely to associate science with men than with women.

Based on a related assessment tool, research published in Science in 2017 showed that gender-based stereotypes related to intelligence show up by the end of kindergarten—a finding that horrified Virginia Tech geosciences graduate student Caitlin Colleary. The 6-year-old girls included in the study were significantly more likely to choose men than women when presented with an array of photos and asked to point to a “really, really smart person.” And when the researchers offered activity opportunities to the children, girls were less likely than boys to choose an activity for “children who are really, really smart.”

Colleary approached the center with an idea for sending women researchers into kindergarten classrooms to provide female scientist role models. We found enthusiastic partners in Giles County Public Schools STEM coordinator Christina Martin and three kindergarten teachers at Eastern Elementary/Middle School, a Title 1 school about 25 minutes west of Blacksburg.

The ICAT Play Date presentation, “Girls Launch! A Pandemic Response to Providing Female Scientist Role Models to Children,” told an in-person and online audience the story of the Girls Launch! project. Presenters described the program’s monthly visits by women scientists to three kindergarten classrooms, the 10 science videos and activity guides that women graduate students made in response to the pandemic when visits had to be discontinued, and the gender and science identity research that accompanies the outreach and incorporates the Draw-a-Scientist prompt.

The project was also on display earlier this year in the Moss Arts Center exhibits hallway as part of ICAT’s Open (at the) Source exhibit and is available online here and in a virtual sculpture garden. If you’d like to share the full videos and activity guides with the favorite children in your life, they’re available at the Center for Communicating Science YouTube channel. A computer coding lesson plan about handwashing also incorporates one of the videos. Developed by Virginia Tech’s Floyd County Public Schools liaison, Kim Keith, the lesson plan and video are available for teacher use on Go Open Virginia, a statewide curriculum and educational resources repository.

Initial findings of the project’s research component have been published in Science Communication under the title “Are Scientists Smart? Kindergarteners’ Gendered Understanding and Use of Descriptors About Science and Intelligence.” Neuroscience graduate student Kelly Runyon presented additional findings, “What do Scientists Look Like? Drawing Scientists in Kindergarten and Middle School,” at the Society for Research in Child Development biennial meeting last April, and Kroehler presented the video-making project at the Science Talk ’21 conference in March.

Join us at 11 a.m. Wednesday, November 3, to learn more about the project! We’ll be presenting at the monthly meeting of Widening Inclusivity in the (Geo)Sciences—and we will help you distill your research to a message that appeals to a 5-year-old. Use zoom link (Meeting ID: 859 9200 8969).

The production of the kindergarten science videos and activity guides was supported by a 2020 rapid-response grant from the Institute for Creativity, Arts, and Culture to the Center for Communicating Science.

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