From white lab coats and crazy hair to actual scientists

Exploring the impact of researcher interaction and performing arts on students’ perceptions and motivation for science

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Science Communication Vol 40, Issue 6, 2018

Isabel Ruiz-Mallén, Sandrine Gallois, María Heras


In the era of digital technologies and significant socioecological changes, educating young generations in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) to improve their skills and values for lifelong learning, such as reflexivity, collaboration, and communication, has been highlighted as a main concern. 

Young people’s engagement in science through reasoning and critical understanding is expected to positively contribute to building innovative and democratic knowledge-based societies, as argued by the European Union through the Responsible Research and Innovation framework in science education. 

Furthermore, STEM trainings are expected to provide young people with more opportunities to deal with current and future occupational demands. 

The last European report on STEM jobs showed that demand from STEM-related professionals increased by 12% from 2000 to 2013 and was expected to grow by 8% until 2015 while all occupations were expected to rise by only 3%. 

STEM careers’ recruitment, however, decreased dramatically in the last decade across Europe, and nowadays, despite the upturn, to increase the number of students—particularly girls—interested in pursuing a scientific career is still a priority at the policy level. In this regard, it has been highlighted that the still prevalent socially perceived incompatibility of female gender roles in science can particularly discourage girls from studying STEM courses.

Efforts to reverse this trend have often been addressed to produce more attractive curricular methods in science education, with a focus on inquiry-based learning. In this sense, previous research has shown that arts-based techniques, and particularly drama, are useful for describing, exploring, or discovering scientific issues within inquiry-based learning projects. Furthermore, efforts to increase the attractiveness of scientific careers have also been directed toward breaking negative stereotypes around science and scientists. Indeed, an unappealing image of scientists perceived by students can potentially drive them away from considering STEM disciplines as career choices.

In this study, we examine if and how the establishment of a direct interaction between secondary school students and researchers who are at an early stage of their careers, together with the use of drama-based techniques for science learning, have an impact on students’ stereotyped perceptions of scientists as well as on their motivations for studying STEM careers. 

To do so, we tested different techniques based on performing arts through a series of workshops in different European sociocultural settings. Specifically, we examine (a) whether students initially perceived a stereotyped image of scientists and showed interest in pursuing STEM careers. We then assess (b) whether such an image and motivation changed after participating in the workshops and (c) whether stereotypes were important in terms of scientific career choice, controlling by sex and case study.


In relation to our initial questions, our findings suggest that overall, students initially held a stereotyped image of scientists and showed low motivation for STEM careers across the three case studies. While this image became less stereotyped after interacting with researchers and participating in science education activities based on performing arts, students’ low motivation remained in the case of Barcelona while Bristolian and Parisian pupils became more interested in STEM careers, although this change was only significant in Paris. Findings also show that stereotyped images of scientists’ work and look were relevant for scientific career choice before the intervention, but such association was not significant afterwards, probably due to a decrease in the stereotyped image perceived by the students. Two important conclusions for addressing stereotypes around science and scientists and fostering interest in scientific careers at schools emerge from these findings.

On the one hand, our study reveals that involving actual researchers in a series of science learning activities using drama-based methods with students at their secondary schools partly reduces the stereotyped thinking that makes them associate scientists with unattractive attributes of their work and look. This is relevant for science education and communication practice because these findings can encourage secondary schools, but also universities and research centers, to seek out suitable strategies for bringing scientists to the classroom beyond sporadic visits and with traditional methods (e.g., giving a talk). 

By participating in drama-based activities conducted by teachers in tandem with science communicators/artists when teaching and learning science at school, researchers can work with students on scientific topics in a more creative, intimate, and inspiring way. 

This is important because the way researchers show themselves as individuals and talk about their daily routine in the scientific field could represent a “new” image that pupils can use to replace their existing beliefs and build their interests in science.

On the other hand, our experience suggests that such interaction with scientists at schools and the use of drama-based techniques was not always enough to positively influence students’ attitudes toward STEM careers, which probably requires more time and more integration of the artistic dimension within the pedagogical approach. But it also suggests that involving researchers in science learning activities and embedding artistic techniques in a more holistic way than simply employing an artistic approach to communicate scientific content can have the potential to foster students’ interest in science and related careers. 

We thus encourage future research to shed new light on how the interaction between researchers and students at the school context, supported by the use of different performing arts, can pedagogically nurture science teaching and learning to reinforce motivational outcomes in inquiry-based learning as well as bring students closer to the reality of research.


Martin Delahunty

Managing Director, InspiringSTEM Network

Founder & Managing Director, InspiringSTEM. Formerly, Global Director at Springer Nature. Highly experienced scientific technical and medical publisher. Extensive experience of working with international science research organisations, universities and academic researchers working on journals, digital communities and conferences. Proud UK Stem Ambassador. Experienced speaker and presenter. European Irish.