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25/10/2014

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Imagining scientists in children’s TV

Involve the children, say Richard Holliman, Elizabeth Whitelegg and Jennifer Carr

It’s alive! It’s alive! The stereotype of a scientist, that is. That white-coated, bespectacled, middle-aged male with crazy hair may have found the secret of eternal life. Watch animated cartoons on children’s television and you are likely to find him, working on illicit experiments in a secret underground laboratory. But do not despair. Children and young people are coming to the rescue.

Dead scientists’ society

Scientists are venerated in lots of cultural forms - in portraits, sculptures, textbooks, the names of buildings, even on banknotes. These representations tend to favour older men. In part this is down to the historical legacy of denying women access to learning and the sciences. It is also because scientists tend to be honoured towards the end of their careers. As a result, successful, ageing, male scientists tend to dominate the public face of science. Of course, this reality is slowly changing as female scientists gain greater prominence. It will, however, take time to redress the balance.

Children’s television

We wanted to know how female and male scientists were portrayed on children’s television. We looked at a whole range of genres for pre-school and school-age children, both factual and fictional. We included news and current affairs, natural history, reality TV, game shows and educational programmes, and also comedy, drama, science fiction and animated cartoons. We found scientists everywhere we looked, and positive images were in evidence. But we also located stereotypical images of scientists. These images were more likely to be represented in fictional genres.

Overall then, the flow of children’s television can be characterised as a mixture of stereotypical scientists juxtaposed with emerging types.

Why are these stereotypical images used? After all, images of scientists in fiction are only limited by the imagination of producers and what they perceive audiences will understand. We found that investigating audiences can provide a useful resource to imagine more authentic images of female and male scientists and the types of work they do.

Media literacy

We studied how children aged 11 to 15 and young people interpret and contextualise images of scientists. By inviting them to produce ideas for children’s television programmes featuring science we allowed them to work collaboratively and creatively using their own vocabulary.

The results show that the children and young people with whom we worked had sophisticated media literacy skills. They could deconstruct stereotypes and differentiate between fact and fiction. Working in groups they also produced ideas for television series that were age appropriate, worked across platforms and featured associated online resources and merchandise.

As an example, one of the groups called their production company Test Tube Babies. Drawing on ideas from existing programmes from children’s television they developed a plan for a series for pre-school children, arguing that: ‘...we thought it would appeal to younger children and make them know STEM at a younger age.’

The show, called Super duper babies, was described as a comedy cartoon. It featured four babies, two girls and two boys. Each baby would represent an academic field: science, technology, engineering and mathematics, respectively. These characters would ‘...save the world by solving different problems, using STEM’.

Overall, we found that game shows and comedy were genres that these children and young people valued. Game shows allowed the children to introduce a competitive element with prizes involving visits to authentic scientific organisations, such as NASA. In contrast, combining aspects of factual and fictional genres allowed them to introduce elements that were at times educational, sometimes entertaining.

Based on our research we argue that children and young people could make valuable contributions to the development of original programming for children’s television.

For more about the Invisible Witnesses Project, see www.open.ac.uk/invisible-witnesses

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Richard Holliman
Richard Holliman, Elizabeth Whitelegg and Jennifer Carr are all members of the Invisible Witnesses Project team. They work at the Open University
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