Effect of Women Science Career Role Models on Early Adolescents’ Attitudes toward Scientists and Women in Science

Walter S Smith and Thomas Owen

In Journal of Research in Science Teaching 23:8 (1986) pp.667-676

This research tests the hypothesis that students of both genders encountering female role models of female scientists have more positive attitudes towards women in science overall. The study carried out was aimed at early adolescent students in middle school in the United States.

An experiment was conducted in eight locations with students from school grades 5 to 8 with a control and experiment group in each location across America. There was a variety of racial and socioeconomic backgrounds within these locations. One teacher in each location conducted the study over the course of two months, teaching both the control and experiment classes in their school. The only difference in the teaching was that the experiment groups were exposed to at least three women science career role models, the teachers talked about at least six women who had made important contributions to science and the class read about at least six young women using science in their everyday work. Role models visited the experimental classrooms and led ‘mind capturing’ science activities, discussed how science concepts related to their careers and answered students’ questions. Students in both control and experimental groups were tested pre- and post-intervention in two questionnaires consisting of statements that the students had to answer on a scale of ‘strongly agree’ to ‘strongly disagree’; the first questionnaire was on attitudes towards scientists and the second on attitudes towards women in science.

The main finding of the experiment was that introducing female scientists as role models in the classroom has a very positive impact on the attitudes of students with regards to women in science. Importantly, these positive attitudes are consistent for both male and female students, not just female students as had been found in earlier studies. Furthermore, integrating female role models, through classroom visits and consistent mentions within the classroom setting to tie in with the curriculum, was found to be important in continually reinforcing the perception and make it relevant for the students. It is expected that the positive effect of using of female scientist role models on perceptions of women in science may also positively impact female enrolment in science courses in high school and open up the consideration of science careers for girls.

The authors believe that, considering that the findings were consistent across the eight locations with students from a variety of racial and socioeconomic backgrounds, that these results can be expected when used in any location. The results, however, will instead be limited by the quality of integrated education and role model visits available to the teachers who volunteer to use such methods in their own classrooms.

To access the article, visit the website of the Journal of Research in Science Teaching.