Academic journal article Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media

Connecting Theory and Practice: Women Scientist Role Models in Television Programming

Academic journal article Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media

Connecting Theory and Practice: Women Scientist Role Models in Television Programming

Article excerpt

When it all came together, and here was one simple model that explained everything--there was this feeling of joy, the same joy that you have when you worked out a complicated jigsaw puzzle and that all the pieces did fit in there, that the world really makes sense, that it is not arbitrarily complicated, that once you just have your physics and your observations right, that it will make sense to you. Marcia McNutt, Discovering Women

In Discovering Women, the six-part PBS series featuring the contributions of women to science, the narrator introduces Geologist Marcia McNutt who "studies phenomenon that take place on a geologic time scale" (Discovering Women, 1995). Marcia McNutt is described by her colleagues as a "very persistent person" who "typically will not take no for an answer" and who has "contributed to science in several very distinct ways." McNutt's daily life is full of activities that revolve around her professional and personal responsibilities. Throughout the program, she is shown taking her daughter to school on her first day, leading a field research team in the South Pacific, sending e-mail to her children while conducting field research at sea, working alone in front of her computer, assisting her housekeeper with dinner preparations, rations, and meeting with Nevada officials and residents to gain permission to conduct her research at Lake Mead. These images of McNutt challenge traditional stereotypes of the role of women in the sciences.

Positive portrayals of women scientists like the one described above provide girls and young women interested in careers in science with a wide range of options and possibilities (Steinke, 1997). The women scientists on this series are portrayed as expert and competent, able to balance their personal and professional responsibilities, and equal in every way to male colleagues. These images emphasize the important role of women in science by showing them as leaders in their fields, mangers of their own research laboratories, and directors of their own research projects.

Researchers, educators, and policy makers have emphasized the importance of programs to encourage more girls and young women to participate in science. Recent intervention efforts to foster girls' interest in science have used the mass media to change girls' perceptions of scientists. For example, television programs like Discovering Women and Breakthroughs: The Changing Face of Science, both broadcast on PBS, have featured successful women scientists. In addition, educational science programs for middle school-aged children like Newton's Apple and Bill Nye the Science Guy, also broadcast on PBS, regularly present the work of women scientists.

The need for programs to encourage girls' interest and participation in science still exists today because women are underrepresented in science fields. Only 39% of all master's degrees and 31% of all doctoral degrees in the agricultural, biological, and physical sciences and 15% of all master's degrees and 10% of all doctoral degrees in engineering awarded in 1992-93 in the United States were earned by women (National Center for Education Statistics, 1995). Employment statistics show that only 27% of employed natural scientists and 8% of employed engineers in early 1996 in the United States were women (U.S. Department of Labor, 1996).

Using Women Scientists as Role Models

The use of women scientist role models is a common technique used by a variety of intervention programs designed to increase the number of girls and young women in science (Clewell, 1987). Using women scientist role models can reduce stereotyping of science that can lead to misperceptions about the appropriateness of scientific careers for women. Few systematic efforts have been made, however, (1) to assess the effectiveness of role models in reducing stereotypes of science, and (2) few intervention programs have been theory-based in their design. …

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