Native American perceptions of scientists

By Heather King - November 2013


Laubach, T. A., Crofford, G. D., & Marek, E. A. (2012). Exploring Native American students’ perceptions of scientists. International Journal of Science Education, 34(11), 1769–1794.

Research Brief 

Native Americans represent 1.7 percent of the U.S. population, yet less than 0.5 percent of all U.S. scientists and engineers are Native American. This disparity may be explained by a number of factors, both social and economic. In particular, it is suggested that the selection of STEM subjects at school (which in turn determine career options) are affected by students’ personal views and perceptions of STEM careers.

In this study, the researchers assumed that children’s images of science affect their education and career choices. They asked 133 Native American students to draw a picture of a scientist and make notes to explain their drawing. The students, grades 9–12, came from a variety of Native American communities, with 71 of the students speaking a native language at home.

Theoretical Basis 

The Draw a Scientist Test, or DAST, has been widely used by researchers. The theory is that drawings are representations of internal conceptions, so they allow researchers to examine individuals’ views and beliefs. Researchers can compare a student’s views of scientists with the student’s view of self and note any discrepancies. Educational programmes can then be designed to address misplaced beliefs and stereotypes, thus supporting students to feel more connected with science and scientists.

The authors of this paper cite Brush (1979), who found that the distance between students’ views of themselves and their views of scientists was good predictor of course participation. In other words, students who feel that their personal characteristics are similar to those of scientists are more likely to enrol in science courses and pursue STEM careers than those who hold stereotypical views far distant from their view of themselves.

The DAST test was developed by Chambers in 1983. It analyses student drawings of scientists based on the presence or absence of the following items:

Chambers’s (1983) test has been refined and adapted in a number of ways. The DAST-C test (Finsen, Beaver, & Crammond, 1995) used in this study adds several stereotypical items to the original list:

For each drawing, each item is scored 1 if present or 0 if absent. The higher the final score, the more stereotypical the drawing is.

Research Findings 

The researchers found that the majority of the Native American students in the study held stereotypical views, but that the stereotypes were relatively limited in type or extent. Students drew scientists as male, Caucasian, with glasses and beards, working indoors, and typically working with glassware and liquids. The other items listed above were rarely featured. Older students held fewer stereotypical views than younger students. Female students held fewer stereotypes than males. The Native American students who spoke a native language at home held fewer stereotypes than those who did not. In the notes accompanying their drawings, a larger percentage of students who spoke a native language (18 percent) than non-native-language students (9 percent) indicated that their scientist was observing something rather than conducting some sort of experiment.

Implications for Practice 

In their discussion, the researchers express concern that none of the students drew scientists who appeared Native American or were practising native or indigenous science. But, they also acknowledge that the students may have drawn what they knew to be stereotypical, almost cartoon-like, images. In this way, their drawings might not accurately reveal their personal views of science.

However, the findings nonetheless raise issues for informal science educators who seek to engage minority students with STEM. Clearly, educators need to develop learning experiences that combat stereotypical views. One approach would be to enhance educators’ understanding of minority cultures so they can create programmes that are relevant and meaningful to their audiences. The aim would be to help minority students develop perceptions of science and scientists that do not conflict with their personal identities. They could then be equipped with the confidence to cross cultural borders into possible STEM careers.