Fermilab's website shows drawings of seventh graders before and after their visit to the US Department of Energy national laboratory, which specializes in high-energy particle physics. (I don't remember how I found out about the link, but it seems that I read it on Anand Kulkarni's Twitter page.) The drawings are all wonderful, but I particularly liked these ones:
- Beth: Before: "I see a scientist working in a lab with a white lab coat . . . holding a beaker filled with solutions only he knows." After: "The scientists used good vocabulary and spoke like they knew what they were talking about."
- David: Before: "I always see a scientist holding a bottle with a bubbly substance and it is usually a weird color, like green or red." After: "I first thought of the scientist as a nerdy person or someone walking around with a laptop. [...But scientists] are just like you and me."
- Katie: Before: "[My scientist] would also have numerous white lab coats." After: "[Scientists'] jobs sound very interesting because they can do whatever they want and they still get paid for it. They can dress in casual clothes and decorate their offices however they want." Living the high life!
What is obvious from the drawings is that seventh graders all imagine scientists as experimental chemists in lab coats who look very nerdy - that image does not particularly encourage schoolchildren to pursue science as a career. A benefit of the visit is that they realized after meeting the staff at Fermilab that science isn't limited to chemistry, that there's more to science than doing experiments (especially in high-energy particle physics until the Large Hadron Collider was completed) and that scientists are regular folks with interests outside work.
In Pat's words: "The scientists were like me when I was little. The scientists played sports, hung out with their friends and also did not get straight A's in every subject."
The site was apparently created in 2000. I wonder how kids' perception of scientists have changed over the past ten years, although I suspect they have not changed by much. More importantly, I wonder if the visit to Fermilab encouraged any of these kids to become a scientist.