Eleanor S. Armstrong ran a pilot study workshop for children in the London Science Museum (UK) to survey how children think of scientists and how they represent an astronaut in their drawings. The results were presented at the European Planetary Science Conference.
We often think of science as something that is perfect and complete and gives a full understanding, she explains. One of Armstrong’s aims was to test if children can instead understand science as a process; thinking and solving problems in a scientific way, if they get an appropriate input. Instead of asking children to “draw a scientist”, the activity prompted children to use their own knowledge to solve a problem on the moon – building a collection of solutions: “Moon Tales”. She then used the drawings and children’s descriptions as data to understand if framing the question differently had allowed participants to understand being scientific differently.
While in Draw a Scientist tests there are up to twelve architypal features of scientists (including lab coat, goggles, chemical glassware) Armstrong found that the minimum identifyer of an astronaut is a helmet. Interestingly, even though the experiment was made in the UK, half of the children draw an American symbol on the astronauts, suggesting that narratives of NASA permeate ideas about who is an astronaut.
Somewhat unexpectedly, compared to the solo figures of draw a scientist tests, children pictured scientists together, working in groups. This showed that children understood the importance of collaboration in scientific activities. Alongside this, children showed a number of steps, as a cartoon strip or a storyboard, for solving these problems; suggesting an understanding of science as a process.
Each of the three problems asked for different skills to solve problems faced by an astronaut. In solutions to a problem built on empathy and asking one another for help (‘The other astronaut misses their family! What would you do?’), responses showed that the children use their own experiences in solving the problems. For example, children suggested they had pictures of the other astronaut’s family, gave them toys, pets, hugs, or did things that distracted the children from sadness or let them make a video call. These drawings made the students to think of everyday situations as scientific problems and solve them in a scientific way, concludes the author.