Guest post: teaching biodiversity and challenging sciency stereotypes in a Primary School

Rachel Gilbert

Rachel Gilbert

This is a guest post by Rachel Gilbert who did her Hns project with me this year (2012-2013). Some of our Hns students choose the opportunity to do a teaching project as their Hns 3rd year research project. Rachel decided to do a teaching project with a Primary School, St Michael in the Hamlet.

There is a trend in which science is viewed in a very stereotypical, one dimensional way. At the extreme, scientists are seen as mad men in white coats with crazy hair who blow up test tubes doing not much of anything, while occasionally discovering something apparently important. This view is especially prominent in young people, which is problematic, because these are the individuals who we need to take up science as a career if we have any chance of solving the world’s vast array of problems. One such problem centres around biodiversity, more accurately, it’s loss.

In today’s world, less is more. Fewer buttons, more commands; smaller screens, more power; but what is the less to our ever increasing population? More people, more houses, more man-made. Less space, less habitats, less natural-world. With the population expanding at its current rate there is only time for short term solutions – more housing. Fast. Over 50% of the world’s population lives in urban areas, and these are growing at an alarming rate, mainly to relieve the need for housing. This urban growth has large, intrusive effects. Biodiversity isn’t confined to far away, exotic places such as the forests of Africa. It’s here, outside our doors. Or at least, it should be. To put it in context, the current rate of biodiversity decline mirrors that of the previous five great mass extinctions shown in the fossil record.

Conserving global biodiversity has some obvious benefits, namely the protection of endangered species and maintenance of our world’s ecosystems. Conservation of biodiversity has other, equally important, benefits which may be less immediately recognisable. Biodiversity improves our own well-being and provides us with a multitude of services, and as such its conservation is also often considered ethically important.

The question is, how can we help? No one person can save the planet, but each little step will make a difference. But you can’t make a difference if you don’t know about the problem. So, step one: education. It seemed obvious to me that this was something that could be taught to younger students, instilling an understanding of biodiversity and it’s importance early on, allowing the students to take a positive understanding of nature through into adulthood. For my Hns Project, I decided to work on educating children early on about biodiversity, while improving their attitude towards science and changing their preconceptions about what a scientist is. After all, I am a young (sane) female scientist, who has never blown up a test tube (although I cannot ignore the occasional the crazy hair).

Upon visiting the school it was immediately obvious that they had a perfect set up for a simple biodiversity experiment. The school is fortunate to have a rather beautiful ‘wild garden’, or small woodland area, within its grounds which provided a contrast to other areas around, namely the concrete playground and grassy fields. The experiment would go as follows: students were put into groups of 4 and given a sample pot, hula hoop and work sheet. One member from each group stood in a circle around me and through their hoop out into the area. This was to imitate quadrats and random sampling, increasing the experiments reliability, and making the students feel like that were really partaking in an experiment. Then then recorded all the plants they found in their hula hoops, and anything else they thought they should also record, such as the weather, time, number of trees around. This is an experiment which can be replicated at any school, as long as there are three different environments near it.

I began the lesson by challenging the students’ preconceptions around science with an introduction which included a small quiz. The children had to match 4 semi-famous people to their professions, two males and two females, with the photos taken out of context of their profession, Fig.1.

Figure 1. Images, including the names and professions, shown to the students in the introductory talk. Originally the children were shown the photos without the text. After class discussion the names and professions were revealed

Figure 1. Images, including the names and professions, shown to the students in the introductory talk. Originally the children were shown the photos without the text. After class discussion the names and professions were revealed

What was interesting was that during the project, the students revealed that they did indeed see scientists as alien, with only one student out of 55 indicating a desire to become a scientist before they began the project. During the quiz, the students all believed the man in the white shirt (Paul Smith) was the scientist. In fact, it is the female, top left, who is the scientist: Linda Buck. What further surprised them was the notion that I was a scientist. Did that mean they too could be scientists, one day? After all, I don’t look like anything they couldn’t be.

In answers to a word association question posed before the project, many students wrote ‘boom’, ‘chemicals’ and ‘explosions’ as words they associated with ‘science’, further indicating how little they knew about science as a career, showing that the majority of the students believe that scientists only work in laboratories.

By the end of the project, which spanned two days, there was a change in the students understanding of science. In a post-project questionnaire, students commented: ‘we can be scientists too’ and ‘science can be outside’ as interesting things they had learnt. There was only a slight increase in positive responses held by the students after the project, but there was a great decrease in negative associations, with the majority moving to a neutral stance.

Correcting misconceptions about what a scientist actually is needs to start early on, before they become ingrained in students, making them much harder to correct as the children age. As it is my aim to become a primary school teacher, I have attended many talks about teaching and becoming a teacher. I often find myself among the considerable minority as a female scientist, and that doesn’t change much when you include males. This lack of scientists teaching students will have an effect, if just subconsciously, on the students being taught. Does this indicate a need for more scientists teaching our younger generations, or just more accurate information on what scientists are?

My experiment was fun (according to those involved) and a difference in the usual routine of the school day. While the main reason for the experiment was to produce a science-based resource for schools to teach biodiversity, it highlights an increasing problem in which science is falling victim to negative stereotypes which are not being offset at a young age possible due to the lack of scientist role models in the class rooms.

Therefore, while my project did cause an increase in the kids knowledge on biodiversity, it also exposed them to a non-stereotypical scientist (myself) and showed them that science isn’t all about lab coats and big confusing words. More projects like this, kept on a one-off basis but continued throughout primary and secondary school, could really help to increase children’s understanding of what a scientist actually is (just a normal person with a passion for scientific discovery) and what they do (almost anything!)



  1. Thanks Rachel for the post. Your ‘who is the scientist’ experiment is great; here is another nice resource to challenge those stereotypes.


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