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Science: Is it a Girl Thing?

Dr Francisca Wheeler with girls from WGS, Winners at the British Physics Olympiad 2013

Dr Francisca Wheeler with girls from WGS, Winners at the British Physics Olympiad 2013

Can girls do science? This was a question which Teneeka Mai, Tanya Drobnis and Siyang Weianswered with a resounding ‘yes’ as they claimed victory at the British Physics Olympiad in April, winning Gold Awardsin their age category. Nationally, more than 5000 students took part in the Olympiad, organised across five categories by the Institute of Physics and supported by Oxford University. The year 11 students from Withington Girls’ School were amongst thirty Gold Award winners, twenty five of whom were boys. The prizes were presented by eminent astrophysicist Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnellat The Royal Institute in London.

For Teneeka, hoping to go on to attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the competition has only encouraged her passion for Physics, However these girls are an exception to the long-standing and regrettably slow-changing state of affairs in which the participation of girls in science is much lower than that of boys. More women attend university, but only 37% take science degrees, compared with 47% of men. 49% of state schools send no girls on to study A-Level Physics. At post-graduate levels, there are far fewer female science researchers than male, and only 12 out of the 503 science Nobel prizes awarded since 1901 have been granted to women. Worldwide, the problem continues, although here it is often linked to women’s under participation in higher education overall.

Any science teacher willrecognise this situation, as well as the entrenched misperceptions about the subject. A 1987 study which asked girls and boys to draw a ‘scientist’ invariably turned out the image of a man with wild hair, dressed in a lab coat, and wielding a sign saying ‘Danger!’. One suspects that the study would reveal the same today. This aged conception of science and scientists is unhelpful but unfortunately widespread. Due to these broad cultural misassumptions, it is therefore unsurprising that it is particularly a girl’s confidence which is viewed as most important in tackling these issues. Dr Francisca Wheeler, former Head of Physics at Withington Girls’ School and Teacher Coordinator at the Institute of Physics, believes it is vital that teachers, especially in Physics, endeavour to develop programmes which use a variety of examples to demonstrate the scientific concepts explored, including those which relate better to a girl’s world than the more usual ballistics and super-cars.

Looking for answers then on a broader scale, single-sex schooling has been suggested as a possible solution, with some arguing that it provides the space for girls to ask questions and build their confidence; because, according to teacher Lisa Bradshaw, who led the three Withington girls to their success at the Olympiad,there is ‘no one telling them they can’t do Science’.This is supported by the experience of her student Teneeka, who feels strongly that single-sex schooling was beneficial in developing her interest in science.

Yet all parties unite in emphasising the important role of the parent, the child’s first teacher and primary role model.A parent and scientist herself, Violetta Chemeris expresses her disappointment in what she feels is a deficiency of science activities for children, and a lack of communication from schools about children’s learning which makes it difficult to follow up their teaching at home. Many will share her frustrations. But experts point out that it is often the small, everyday things which can make the most difference. This can be on as simple a level as the toys with which children play, to simple conversations about nature and the child’s school learning,or small-scale, ‘kitchen-science’ experiments.

Professor of Pure Mathematics Alexandre Borovik from the University of Manchester argues that to develop the necessary self-confidence for the sciences, it can be simply the fleeting remarks and ordinary conversation of parents which can inspire their children, who learn better in an ‘unscripted’ fashion. This includes ordinary hobbies such as sports, developing a girl’s confidence in her general abilities, alongside the rejection of any stereotypes about female roles in society.

Those who agree include Philip Rose, a former lecturer in Computing who founded the highly popular SciTech summer camp 22 years ago, currently held in Altrincham Grammar School for Boys. Philipinsists that parents should ensuretheir daughters are involved inpractical activities around the house – what would once have been considered ‘working with Dad’ – convincing them that they ‘can do’ as much as their brothers.

The camp itself, which features a roughly 50:50 mix of boys and girls aged from 5 to 12, is one very inspiring example of how a little enthusiasm and a few fun experiments can really ignite a child’senthusiasm for science, with the old motto: ‘SciTech: a challenge for the mind not the muscle’. Helen Carrington is a 17 year old student from Withington Girls’ School who has been attending the camps for ten years, first as a participant and now as a member of staff. She cites the SciTech camp as the very place where she began her love of science, which she hopes to continue by studying Physics at Imperial College London. This year’s campfeatureda special‘custard’, an upside-down room, and an ultrasound scanner, alongside everyday science activities. The SciTech camp exemplifies the variety of exciting scientific experiences, both in the home and in the wider sphere, which can inspire both girls and boys.

For winning student Teneeka, science means a lot, and the media hunger for new scientific developments only fuels her passion. But for many girls, the scientific world is one from which they feel alienated. There are today a number of movements aiming to encourage girls to take up science, including the EU’s ‘Science: It’s a Girl Thing!’ campaign, started in 2012. Yet perhaps more important than any broad social activities is the role of the parent in inspiring their child, while the things they can do are simple and, hopefully, about as much fun as jumping in custard.

3 comments to Science: Is it a Girl Thing?

  • Jess

    I think parents do need to think about whether they’re unconsciously pushing girls and boys in different directions through the activities they offer. eg I took my kids to a local ‘hands on science centre’ on Sat. There were noticeably more boys than girls there. All the kids were having fun. But where were the rest of the girls? We went to an art workshop at the museum in the hols. There were far more girls than boys there, though boys and girls alike really enjoyed it.

    • 3NT

      The main problem is that those who “unconsciously pushing girls and boys in different directions” are affected by the same stereotypes. Those who think about these things are usually trying to help to develop kids’ interests.

  • Following our children sometimes is a grater skill than leading them.
    I agree, often we push them in directions dictated by the society or our own upbringing, when the main thing is to know what they, as individuals (rather than boys and girls), are interested in.
    Well done Jess you seem to be looking for a balance and finding it.

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