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Biochemical Education 26 (1998) 199-204

The concept of science among children of different ages and

D. Lannes, L. Flavoni, L. De Meis
Nt~cleo de Educaqdo para CiOncia, Del~artarnento de Bioquimica Mddica, Instituto de Ci~ncias Biomddicas, Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro,
Rio de Janeiro CEP 21941-590,Brazil


Schoolchildren's images of 'the scientist' were investigated in Brazil, USA, France, Italy, Chile, Mexico, India and Nigeria by
getting them to make drawings. Even before science is taught as a separate subject in schoolchildren appeared to have a good notion
of what constitutes scientific activity. The relation between 'image' and choice of future career is discussed. 1998 IUBMB.
Published by Elsevier Science Ltd. All rights reserved.

1. Introduction

Much new knowledge is continuously being produced

around the world. During the past decade 850000 to
950000 scientific papers were published yearly in scientific journals indexed by the Institute of Scientific Information (ISI). More than 80% of these were produced in
developed countries [1-3]. In contrast, 84% of the
world's population, up to 24 years of age, is found in
developing countries [4]. Thus, countries with minor
participation in modern science are responsible for the
science education of the largest fraction of this population. The rapid growth in new knowledge requires
continuous changes in the way science is taught.
Developed countries have organized projects to promote
close cooperation between scientists and educators. The
aim is to improve the quality of 'hands-on' science activities and the view that schoolchildren have of science. An
example of such programs is the National Science
Research Center (NSRC) in the USA, sponsored by the
National Academy of Sciences and the Smithsonian
Institute. Similar programs are not frequent in
developing nations because of economic constraints and
the small number of scientists. It would be expected that
the view children have of science varies among different
countries. We have examined, by the use of drawings, (a
natural way of expression for children [6]) how the image
*The full data attached to this study (eight sets of drawings, 16
tables) are available from the authors or from the Editorial Office.

of scientists was perceived by schoolchildren from two

developed and two developing countries [5]. To our
surprise we found that children from the USA and
France have the same image as children from Brazil and
Nigeria. Regardless of country, school students
(10-13 yr) who had not yet studied science as a subject,
held a stereotype of scientists as males, working with
glassware, and this view was not greatly modified during
the high school years.
We have expanded this study to children of different
ages from India, Italy, Mexico and Chile. In addition to
drawings, we asked the students to verbalize their
concept of a scientific career. In Brazil we observed that
starting at quite an early age ( 7 - 9 yr) the idea of what
science is about is rather similar to that of schoolteachers
and scientists. We also found a strong gender bias that
seems to be characteristic of the scientific career.

2. M e t h o d
2.1. B r a z i l

Brazilian schoolchildren learn to read and write at

5 - 7 years old. This is followed by eight years of primary,
and by three years of secondary education. After this
students can apply for admission to university. Science is
taught systematically from the 5th year of primary
school. We selected students from the 1st to the 5th year
of primary school and the 2nd year of secondary school.

0307-4412/98/$19.00 + 0.00 1998 IUBMB. Published by Elsevier Science Ltd. All rights reserved.
PII: S0307-4412(98)00083-1


D. Lannes et al./Biochem&al Education 26 (1998) 199-204

In all, 3053 attended 27 schools from the state of Rio de

Janeiro. O f these, 12 were private and 15 were government schools. Students were asked to: (i) draw a scientist; (ii) draw an artist and a human figure; (iii) write
three things that scientists do. Second school students
were asked: (a) "which field of knowledge is likely to lead
to a scientific career?", and (b) "if you were a scientist, in
what field would you like to work?". Drawings of scientists and answers about scientific activities were also
solicited from schoolteachers and scientists. The 256
teachers taught different subjects at primary and
secondary school of which 15 were private and 17 were
government schools. Fifty-four scientists comprised
seven physicists and 47 from different fields of life
2.2. Other countries
Drawings of a scientist were obtained from 1842
students from USA, France, Italy, Mexico, Chile, India
and Nigeria. Drawings of an artist were obtained from
Nigeria and India. These were in two groups, one of
1 0 - 1 3 y e a r olds and the other of 1 5 - 1 7 y e a r olds.
Students (15-17 years old) from Italy, Chile and Mexico
were asked the same questions as the secondary students
from Brazil. Italians answered both questions and
Chileans and Mexicans answered only one question.

and mathematical equations. Some drawings could not

be related to a scientist because children could not draw
or they used a symbolism that we could not decipher [e.g.
landscapes, houses, etc, see Fig. 1 (b)] or they just did not
know what a scientist was. The fraction of such drawings
decreased from 52% to 3 - 1 0 % as the children became
older. In agreement with our previous report [5] it was
found that glassware was the image used most frequently
to characterize a scientist's working environment. This
was observed in both primary and secondary schools
regardless of age. Drawings of a scientist working with
various machines or images related to space were
frequent in the 1st year, but decreased until the 4th and
5th years.
Of 229 Brazilian students of the 5th year who drew a
scientist, 95 spontaneously wrote some text. Drawings
with a text came from all five schools where the drawings
were requested. In 53% of these texts, the children refer
to scientists using one or more of the following key
words: perform experiments, invent, discovers, creates new
concepts, search for the new. This indicates that these
children have a good idea of what science is about. The
texts also reveal some ambiguity about the character of
science and of scientists. Thus, 18% refer to science as an


2.3. Analysis o f drawings of a scientist

All images that characterized working environments
of the scientist found in each drawing were counted and
expressed as the percentage of drawings in which the
images appeared. The sum of images was higher than
100% because children usually presented more than one
image in each drawing. Images were classified as: glassware (i.e. test tubes, flasks etc); space (i.e. sun, planets,
spaceships etc); idea (represented by a lightbulb near the
scientist's head or the word eureka); question was represented by question marks; other instruments (i.e. images
that appear with low frequency such as books, telescope,
magnifying glass etc).


~, ' t ' ~



3. Image of a scientist among brazilian children

To ascertain at what stage of their formal education

children start to conceive what a scientist is, we asked
5 - 7 y e a r old students up to the 5th year of primary
school (10-13 years old) to draw a scientist (Fig. 1). In
the younger group the drawings were primitive and it was
not possible to deduce whether or not the children had a
notion of what a scientist is [Fig. l(a)]. In the 1st year of
primary school they produced drawings of a scientist
surrounded by instruments (e.g. glassware, machines)

Fig. 1. Brazilianstudents' drawings (a) Six years old student of the

literacy period (5-7 years old); (b) example of a drawings that could
not be related to a scientist made by a 1st year primary school student;
(c) drawing of a boy and (d) of a girl attending 1st year, primary school
(6-8 years old); (e) 2nd year, 1st grade (7-9 years old); (f) 3rd year, 1st
grade (8-10years old); (g) 4th year, 1st grade (9-11 years old); (h)
drawing of student from the 5th year, 1st grade (10-13 years old), and
(i) 2nd year, 2nd grade (15-17 years old).


D. Lannes et al./Biochemical Education 26 (1998)199-204

activity that: helps people, helps humanity, is interesting

work, etc, while 20% felt that science was bad because it
is dangerous, scientists are crazy, etc. The remaining 62%
used words related to scientific activity without reference
to the morality of science. These texts led us to ask
question (a) of children of different grades. The aim was
to substantiate verbally the inferences made from the
drawings. Children who used words such as: does experiments, searches, discovers, invents and creates, were
considered to know what a scientist is. Children
considered not to know what a scientist is usually
referred to professions that do not do scientific research,
usually gave vague descriptions and did not use words
that could be related to research: e.g. scientists take care
of plants; do surgery; go to the University; see how the
weather is, etc. In the 1st year of primary school, children
who understood what a scientist is tended to use shorter
sentences, to state two activities of scientists and to use
only one of the key words. Only a few included more than
one key word. As children grow older, answers include
several words and become more elaborate. Most answers
given by older children, i.e. 2nd year of secondary school,
were similar to those from the 5th year of primary school.
Words such as thinks, hypothesis, observe, teach, publication and administration, which were rarely used by the
primary students appeared more frequently among
secondary school students. The results suggest that
children know what science is by the years 2 - 3 of primary
school, i.e. before experiencing science classes, and their
notion does not change significantly as they proceed to
secondary school.

4. T h e i m a g e o f science a m o n g b r a z i l i a n
s c h o o l t e a c h e r s and scientists

We asked teachers and scientists to draw a scientist

(Figs 2 and 3) and to write five things that scientists do.

Fig. 2.

Schoolteachers' drawings.

\ / /


Fig. 3.


Scientists' drawings.

The aim was to explore the differences between the

children's image that the schoolteachers have of a scientist and the image that scientists have of themselves. Of
157 schoolteachers questioned, 133 answered the
question "what does a scientist do?". Glassware was
frequently found in their drawings, but not in drawings by
scientists, in spite of the fact that most of them work daily
with glassware. Symbolic drawings that express the
theme subjectively were a feature infrequent among
children. Images such as machines, space etc, used by
primary school children were not used frequently in
drawings by schoolteachers or scientists.
Among activities of a scientist, 'makes experiments'
was most used by schoolteachers and scientists. This is
similar to what we found among the children. The words
'searches' and 'discovers' were progressively less used as
we moved from secondary students to schoolteachers
and then to scientists. 'Thinks, hypothesis, teaching,
publications and administration of grants' had a very low
frequency among second students, but a higher
frequency among scientists. Most frequently used by
schoolteachers were 'makes experiments' and 'observation', while among scientist the words were 'to make
experiments' and 'publications'.
We concluded that the notion children have of science
is quite close to what scientists feel about their careers.
Differences between children's and scientists' notions
- - Drawings by children tend to be more concrete and
objective toward the work of scientists, while scientists tend to sublimate their work and express it in
subjective and abstract forms, a feature that seems
not to be shared by children
- - Children seem to correlate the carrying out of experiments with the process of search and discovery while


D. Lannes et aL /Biochernical Education 26 (1998) 199-204

scientists tend to correlate experiments with

is interesting to note that 'think' was most
frequently quoted by scientists, but not by children, as
if 'thinking' were not considered to be important
among children
- - The high frequency of 'teaching' probably reflects
conditions locally in Brazil where most of the science
is carried out at universities. Thus it seems natural
that scientists should associate research with teaching
- - Finally, the idea of a scientist amongst teachers seems
to be somewhere between that of children and

that a dichotomy exists between what they consider

suitable fields for research and what they would like to
work in. This dichotomy may play a negative role in their
selection of science as a profession. In both answers
however, fields that use glassware (biology, chemistry
and biomedicine/medicine) were dominant. This shows a
good correlation between the image of a scientist and the
image of glassware appearing in the drawings of
secondary students (58%). The two questions were also
asked of schoolteachers. Each teacher gave one answer
to each question. Like the students, in question (a) the
fields more quoted were biology, physics and chemistry.
However, humanities was the preference in question (b),
whereas few students mentioned this, suggesting that the
teachers' preference for the humanities was not transferred to students.

5. The artists

Children create an image of the scientist early in their

education and this does not changed during their school
life. It is formed before they learn science as a separate
subject. To test whether this stable image is specific to
the scientist, we asked Brazilian children to draw an
artist. Among students of the 5th year of primary school
the dominant image was that of a TV artist. This image
changed in secondary school, actors appearing with a
similar frequency to plastic artists and musicians. Thus
Brazilian children do not tend to have a stable image of
artists as they do of scientists. It could be however, that
the stereotyped image of other professions is also formed
at an early age.
Students from Nigeria and India represent the artist as
a painter, a stereotype that persists through the years.
These differences are discussed further below.

6. T h e different fields of science

In Brazil, students must select their career at the end

of secondary school when they should be able to
discriminate between the different options available.
These students were asked two questions (a) "which field
of knowledge is likely to lead to a scientific career", and
(b) "if you were a scientist, in what field would you like to
work". Question (a) was posed to a different group of
students in an earlier study [5]. In their responses
students mentioned several different fields, chemistry,
biology and physics being the most frequent (72.2% of
the answers). This confirmed our earlier results [5] where
these were the most frequently mentioned (39, 21.5 and
12.9%, respectively).
For question (b) most mentioned only one field and
the number of answers was smaller, as if students had
their preference clearly in mind. Most frequently
mentioned were: medicine/biomedicine, biology and
astronomy (70.4% of the answers). These results suggest

7. The influence of the media

We previously analyzed the images surrounding scientists in films and comic magazines [5]. Most frequently
these were: machinery (67%), and computers (58%), and
glassware, space and microscope, the three of them with
a frequency of 19.4%. This distribution differs from that
for students from the 5th year of primary school. We
concluded that these two sectors of the media had no
influence on the image that children have of scientists.
Machinery, but not computers, appear frequently in
drawings made by the very young children and decrease
progressively as they reach the 5th year, when the
frequency is similar to that previously described. This
suggests that these media may influence the stereotyped
image that very young students have of scientists, but
that this tends to be diluted by other influences as they
grow older.
We also explored the features of articles on science
appearing in the press. The two main newspapers of Rio
de Janeiro are the Jornal do Brasil and O Globo which
are, in fact, read throughout the country and which both
contain a daily science section. We examined the articles
published during the period that the drawings and
answers to question were being collected in schools. Of
2830 articles examined, 25.4% referred to science
produced in Brazil and 74.6% to international science,
mainly from the USA. Medicine and biomedicine represented 50.6% of the topics presented. (Articles usually
referred to both biomedical new findings and their implications in medical practice.) Other topics were: biology
(16.0%), ecology (13.3%), and astronomy (12.4%), while
new discoveries in physics (without astronomy),
chemistry and mathematics were rare. These results
indicate that the topics more frequently explored by the
press correlate well with what the students would like to
work in if they were scientists, but not with the subjects
they believe are likely to lead to a scientific career.

D. Lannes et al./Biochernical Education 26 (1998)199-204

8. The trends of science, scientists in Brazil and in the

world; correlation with the students' views

Science trends in Brazil can be inferred from the distribution of scientific papers published in the different
areas of knowledge [7,8]. We found that the profile of
Brazilian science is similar to the world profile and what
students would like tO do as scientists, but not with what
they believe may to lead to a scientific career. In the
latter the prevalence of life sciences (medicine/biomedicine and biology) suggests an anthropocentric influence
on students' views and the trends in science. The
similarity we found between the percentage of publications in the different fields and the preference of
students may reflect the human preferences for these
fields of knowledge, so that the newspaper articles on life
science may not influence the image of science among
students but may reflect a tendency of the press to write
on subjects preferred by their readers.
Another important conclusion we have derived is that
the profile of Brazilian science may not change in the
next generation because students selecting their career
now reflect the same preferences as present day science.
It is worthy of note that Brazilian scientific contributions
to earth sciences and environment is very low, with 76
and 65 scientific papers published per year respectively.
The Amazon region of Brazil covers 3.8 million km 2,
representing about 50% of the country, and is the last
virgin rain forest on the planet. The deforestation of the
Amazon region is happening very rapidly and if not
arrested, could be complete within the next generation.
It is difficult to envisage a proper national policy of
development and exploration of the Amazon resources
without the proper knowledge of its geological and
environmental features. This requires a substantial
increase in the number of professionals in the two fields,
a condition which cannot be foreseen from the data we

9. Gender

The image that children have of the scientist is strongly

biased towards the male sex [5]. To test at what age this
image is formed, we examined drawings by students at
different stages of their education. Boys tended to represent scientists as male: girls on the other hand, in the first
year of primary school drew scientists as male and female
with equal frequency, but upon starting their second year
become biased towards the male image. Teachers
seemed to share the same image as students in this
respect. In 36% of drawings the gender was undefined,
but in the rest male scientists (47%) predominated over
female scientists (17%). This discrimination is not
consistent with the true picture in Brazil were the
number of males working in different fields of science is


very similar to that of female scientists [5]. In order to

test whether this biased image was a specific feature of
the perception of scientists, we asked Brazilian children
between 10 and 17 years to draw a human figure or an
artist. The frequency of male and female images did not
vary with the age of the students. There was a strong
association between the sex of the children and that of
the figure drawn. In the combined sample of drawings by
boys and girls the frequency of the appearance of male
and female figures were practically the same, indicating
that in Brazil the image biased towards male scientists is
characteristic of children's images of scientists.

I0. Other countries

In spite of differences in culture and educational

systems in the different parts of the world, as in Brazil,
glassware was the image most frequently represented by
children of different countries. In France, Italy, Mexico
and Chile the frequency of mathematical equations in
drawings was higher than in the USA, Nigeria, India and
Brazil especially among older students. Other elements
appeared with a similar frequency in all countries. In
Mexico we asked children between 10 and 13 years old to
describe the "five things that scientists do". The results
were very similar to those given by Brazilian children.
When we asked questions (a) and (b), teenagers from
Chile and Mexico mentioned the same careers as Brazilians, with a similar order of frequency. As in Brazil, the
areas of science that use glassware, (i.e. biology,
chemistry and medicine) made up more than 50%.
Italian students mentioned a larger variety of careers,
none of them however represented more than 20% of
the answers. A peculiar finding was that 28 of the 86
Italian students mentioned astrology as a field of
knowledge that leads to a scientific career. Twelve
mentioned b o t h astronomy and astrology, indicating they
were not confusing astrology with astronomy. Astrology
was rarely mentioned by the teenagers of Chile and
Brazil. In all countries, the image of a scientist was
strongly biased towards the male sex. Drawings of artists
were obtained from Nigeria and India. By contrast with
Brazil, a stereotype of the artist was clearly present in
India and Nigeria where both younger and older children
depict the artist as a painter. This shows, in contrast to
the image of scientists, the image that children have of
artists varies from country to country. While in Brazil the
image changes with age and is not restricted to painters,
in the two other countries tested, artists were visualized
almost exclusively as painters. A similar variation applied
to the gender of artists. Males dominate in drawings by
girls of both artists and scientists. As a result, in the total
sample (boys plus girls), men are cast in the roles of both
scientists and artists while in Brazil the male stereotype is
found only in the drawings of scientists.


D. Lannes et aL/Biochem&al Education 26 (1998) 199-204

11. Conclusions


In spite of large differences between the contribution

to science of developed and developing countries,
children in these regions of the world have practically the
same image of scientists. Formal school education in
science seems to contribute little to the genesis of this
image. We were led to this conclusion by the similarity
between drawings by children from countries with educational systems as different as those of the USA, Brazil,
India and Nigeria and the finding that this image forms
before children learn science as a separate subject. There
was a good correlation between the drawings of scientists
and students' verbalization about scientific activity. It
seems that starting at an early age, children have a good
notion of what constitutes scientific activity. We were not
able to identify where the children obtained this notion.
The results suggest an anthropocentric influence on the
selection of professional scientific fields. The dichotomy
between what students believe that they should study to
become scientists and the fields of knowledge in which
they would like to work may hinder the selection of
science as a career. The image of the artist that we found
suggests that cultural influence in the evolution of the
stereotyped image that children form of the different
male activities. Perhaps the influence of science in the
world's social organization has been so strong during the
past 50 years that regional cultural influences have given
way to a universal image of scientists. This influence has
not be strong enough to overcome the gender bias
attached to the image of scientists.

We wish to express our gratitude to Professors P.

Guillan, K. de Meis, S. M. Lopez and V Mulinami for the
drawings of students from France, Italy, Mexico and
India, respectively. This work was supported in part by
grants from Funda¸c~o de Amparo 'a Pesquisa do
Rio de Janeiro, Conselho Nacional de Desenvolvimento
Cientffico e Tecnol6gico (CNPq), F I N E P and F A P E R J
by Programa de Apoio ao Desenvolvimento Cientifico e
Tecnol6gico (CAPES), PADCT-Educa¸cfio para
Ci6ncia. D L is recipient of a fellowships CNPq.

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