In the last post I talked about my (Joe’s) failing to get good results about the White Water Writers project. By contrast, today I’m posting about the far far better science done by our team at Keele University. Below is the abstract that they have sent to the AERA conference recently. Some bits that I’m particularly interested in:
- “The process allows young people to explore issues through their novels, which creates an innovative methodology for exploring their views and understanding of topics.” I’ve long been advocating that White Water Writers is an amazing way of unpicking complex social systems in a way that no focus group or survay could.
- “scientists were described as ‘mad’, ‘loopy’ and ‘dangerous’. There was also a lot of discussion about how scientists had ruined the world, for example by turning people into robots and ruining the environment: ‘They thought the scientists could be totally unaware of the effects their experiments are having on the outside world’. ” it is interesting to me that while we as as society spend a lot of time promoting STEM, we haven’t spent much time looking at the cultural picture of ‘scientist’ compared to, say, ‘programmer’.
A novel way to explore young people’s views of science and scientists via their writing
Although there is a generally positive view of science, with 81% of people surveyed feeling that science will make people’s lives easier, only 55% think the benefits of science outweigh harmful effects (Public Attitudes to Science Survey, 2014). Furthermore, young people often see scientists as ‘brainy’ and this can put them off science careers (ASPIRES, 2013). Indeed it has been found that young people who do not view science and scientists positively may be dissuaded from pursuing a scientific career (Barma et al 1997). However, much of this research has been explicit and asked young people to report their attitudes. The current study explored attitudes more implicitly by exploring stories which had been written by young people.
“White Water Writers” gives groups of young people the chance to collaboratively write and publish their own full length novel in a week. The participants plan, write, proofread and develop their novel as a team. The book is placed for sale on Amazon and a few weeks later we host a book signing. The project has demonstrable effects on literacy, soft skills and feelings of control. The process allows young people to explore issues through their novels, which creates an innovative methodology for exploring their views and understanding of topics. In this study we did not specifically invite writers to produce a book about scientists, but gave them a broad brief, namely that something strange was happening in their city and a group of young people had come together to solve the issue.
In this study, sixty young people aged 15 wrote six novels based on this brief. We thematically analysed the books and found a very strong theme of “elitism”. Specifically, scientists were described as ‘mad’, ‘loopy’ and ‘dangerous’. There was also a lot of discussion about how scientists had ruined the world, for example by turning people into robots and ruining the environment: “They thought the scientists could be totally unaware of the effects her experiments are having on the outside world”.
Scientists and other authority figures were presented as being entitled “The way he spoke sounded like he was posh, Ava thought. Ava hated posh prats. They got away with everything. They didn’t earn a simple penny to their name.” Scientists were also seen as unreachable “Lily tries to talk to the government about it in hopes of getting them to acknowledge the fact the loopy scientist was destroying lots of their things, their people, their crops, their animals. Strangely, the government brushed it off as if it were nothing.”
Thus experts such as scientists were seen as entitled, uncaring, arrogant and dangerous. They were also disconnected from the world around them and, for the young people in the stories, unreachable. This negative perception of science and authority might explain why many young people do not aspire to these sorts of careers. However, this also suggests novel ways of encouraging young people, by changing perceptions of scientists rather than focussing on perceptions of science.