Science Image and Geekdom
When it comes to attracting young people into a life in science, we have to think very carefully about the images we put forward. This could not have been more boldly illustrated than by the recent disastrous campaign by the European Union to attract young girls into science courses and science careers.
The campaign called Science: It’s a Girl Thing was spearheaded by a teaser video clip that generated such a volume of negative commentary it was taken off the official website. It features pretty young girls flouncing in fashion to a disco beat, twirling and playing with make-up. Very little to do with science, apart from the occasional picture of a microscope or graphic of Hydrogen’s place on the periodic table. The question is; what was this video trying to say? Science is all about giggling techno and catwalks? That you can be the peak of girly obsessions and still engage in science? It was a very confused mixed message and it came in for a panning among the science communication community.
“It’s terrible. And completely sexist and patronising.”
“It amazes me that no one thought to show women actually doing science!”
“…the message is trying to be that women can work in science without losing their femininity, but it ends up portraying women as shallow and superficial.”
These were just some of the comments generated on one message board.
There are three problems with this video. Firstly it stereotypes young girls into a rather flippant and shallow image. Then its portrayal of science is equally superficial, possibly more so. Lastly, it tries to make a match between these two rather silly motifs. If its aim is to show young women that science is fun and accessible to them, I think it fails utterly.
So what is a good approach to presenting images to young people that will encourage them to engage with science? I would proffer that, rather than try to manufacture an image that doesn’t exist in an attempt to attract youth into science or present a set of values that are simply not science, perhaps it’s better to refresh our perception of those young people who are naturally attracted to science and empower them. I’m talking geeks here people.
Recently I hosted a panel discussion at the Young Minds conference in Sydney where we put forward the idea of Geek Pride, the idea that ‘geek’ ought not to be a pejorative term but a source of empowerment. I say we, but there was an excellent panel in Dr Stephen Bosi, Jack Scanlan (@JackLScanlan) and Dr Krystal Evans (@dr_krystal). Jack is a uni student while Stephen is a medical research physicist and has written on geek matters, and Krystal works at the Walter and Elisa Hall Research Institute looking at malaria. All young keen scientists and all proud geeks.
We chatted about our obsessions (I included myself in this geek-clique but noted that, on turning 40, I ceased to be a geek and became an intellectual), those areas that we find so fascinating and that define us as geeks. It is something you’re either born with or acquire early in life but it’s the pursuit of a particular bank of knowledge that sets the geek apart from their classmates. And then we discussed the downside of geekdom. Why is the term so often used as an insult? Why is the kid who obsesses about science not looked upon with the same adoration as the classmate who obsesses about sport? More to the point, why doesn’t the geek get the mentors, role models and extracurricular support that is lavished on the kids who can kick a bag of wind a little further than the other kids?
Blessed are the geeks for they will create the world of tomorrow! Think of the big success stories of our times and they are all geeks (Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg). Look at the myriad pieces of technology surrounding you right now, that make your life so much richer, and behind each piece is a small army of geeks who invented it. The track record shows over and over that it is the geek in the class that is most likely to go out and do something that will make the world a better place.
Yet we deride the geek. We dismiss them as quirks. It’s time to change that image, reclaim the word and take pride in being geeks and celebrating their achievements. Geek is good. Geeks are the core of tomorrow’s science, just as the geeks of yesteryear are at the centre of science today.
If we want to do something positive about getting youth interested in science, we should avoid creating false images of who might be interested and what science is. Let’s be honest about science as a career; it’s creative, it’s rewarding and it’s hard work. And let’s be equally as honest about the bulk of youth who are attracted to science. They are not freaks, they are geeks and proud of it.
Viva la Geek!
By Paul Willis @Fossilcrox