Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Encouraging girls to love science

This post was prompted by the recent uproar over the recent article/blog in the Guardian 'Girls and science: why the gender gap exists and what to do about it'.  Initially I had skim read the article & thought it had some interesting ideas mainly for trying to address the mathematical side – encouraging girls to be methodological and increase their aptitude & confidence in maths.  I retweeted the link to the article.  Today there was a huge negative response (in the twittersphere) from respected women scientists & it made me reread the article.  I now realise it is very patronising – suggesting girls would respond better if science was dressed up as a ‘social science’ or admit to them that maths is hard work?!  Personally I loved maths & found it easy – nature or nurture?

So it made me think about why I chose science and how to best encourage my daughters to be interested in science (I’d hope I could encourage them to be interested simply in learning rather than being subject specific).

My Dad was an electrical & electronic engineer and he imparted his passion for electronics on me – taking me into his office to see computers the size of rooms (pretty amazing for a young mind!), and at a young age I was bought ‘101 electronic circuits’ kit.  My Dad wanted to explain how each circuit worked before I connected it up according to the instructions.  This approach bored me somewhat & I skipped most of the 101 circuits jumping to constructing the ‘listening device’ for spying in on conversations (if the device had been small enough, which it wasn’t), and the final project to build a radio (which I never got working!). I did this without my Dad’s accompanying explanation because I just wanted to see them working, not to know how it worked!  My Dad also taught me to program from a young age, which I did actually enjoy – but mostly for telling the computer to draw pictures, not to write games as my Dad suggested & certainly not to learn how to ‘file’ as my computer programming teacher wanted us to learn (I was one of the first to do a computer studies GCSE!).  So you could say that for me maybe all this passion of my Dad’s rubbed off on me.  But I never really was passionate about electronics in the way he was (as a child he was building radios & record players from scratch – born to non-scientific parents!).  I was excited by technology but now how it worked.  I was a Star Trek addict, and loved science fiction. I dreamed of future technology, and imagined that in my lifetime there would be holographic tvs (I guess 3D tvs are nearly what I was imagining though without necessary glasses), teleportation (wishful thinking)… And I did love maths.  I’m not quite sure how that happened, but I remember being really fired up about maths at primary school with a headmaster who was a mathematician.  He used to take over the class every so often to impart mathematical wisdom, and I have vivid memories of him lining us up enacting bases (at the age of 10!).  I whizzed through the ‘maths at work’ booklets competing with the other top maths performer in the class – another girl (who is now a lecturer in psychology).

Meanwhile I was becoming fascinated with biology – we lived in a beautiful spot in the countryside, and I’d spend ages lying in the grass watching the birds, looking at all the seeds lined up on the bracken fronds, marvelling at all the centimetre long newly hatched frogs leaping out of the grass as I walked along the path, hatching caterpillars into butterflies… this was a lone passion, not one that was passed onto me (and the passion that has remained).

At secondary school (unusually a state girls school), I dropped biology because I didn’t like the biology teacher (how much influence teachers do have!).  I still had my passion for maths but not overly for the other sciences – I loved maths and art.  When we were studying for our GCSEs we gained a new headmistress, one who was passionate about getting girls into engineering.  Something I’d never considered (despite having a Dad who was an engineer) – but she negotiated some free engineering evening courses at the local college & I signed up.  Admittedly there were only a small handful of us girls who signed up (not everyone’s idea of fun to do courses in evenings!)… but I loved it – the two courses I enjoyed the most was electronics (we had a project of designing and building a circuit – I think it was a light sensitive switching light – so the light came on when it got dark), and I loved the mechanical engineering class (making things on lathes).  I knew I didn’t really want to do mechanical engineering (it was fun playing on lathes but not something I wanted to do as a career) but really enjoyed the electronics J  So before you knew it I wanted to do electrical and electronic engineering at university & chose A-levels of maths, physics & chemistry (& art because I still loved that!).

I have to say that electronics did not live up to the excitement for me.  I did a degree, and 6 years working in industry before I gave it up.  I didn’t have an innate passion for the subject, and felt dissatisfied.  I guess my favourite part of the degree was my final year project working on image processing – analysing x-ray images of the vocal canal during speech, extracting the contour of the vocal canal so that mathematical models could be built to create better voice synthesis.  Fun stuff!  But my career followed a different trajectory, lovely people, but subject that just didn’t excite me (and I’ve rarely had problems being a woman in engineering, it just wasn’t an issue).  So eventually I retrained in my true innate passion of biology – still science though!  I have to say that of the few women engineers that I do know many did end up retraining – but they all stayed in science J  (maths teacher, oceanographer & computer programmer)… well apart from the girl who dropped out in the first year of our degree who left to study textiles (she knitted through the lectures).

So what does that teach me about how to encourage girls into science?  I do think that being unafraid of maths is a really essential starting line.  It isn’t difficult!  Ok… I’m not sure whether I found it easy because that’s the way my brain is wired or whether it was my Dad’s influence on me (note that neither of my sisters found maths easy, but then my Dad concentrated on ‘downloading’ his knowledge to me rather than them – though my middle sister did end up becoming a medical doctor which is very science based!).  I do think that many kids (male or female) get a brain blank on maths because they are told it is difficult.  So some of the suggestions in the Guardian article made me think that maybe these suggestions would help prompt young brains to think logically (following instructions for building lego, or following recipes, etc.), which would help make maths seem not so difficult (because it is really about learning rules). Also it is clear that schools do have a really important role – good teacher role models (I had to start biology from scratch after giving it up at 14 due to a dreadful teacher), events to encourage girls into science (or boys admittedly!).  The courses I did to encourage girls into engineering were great, but I’m not sure they were the answer because they were only taken up by a small handful of girls (& I think several of us ended up becoming engineers) – we need to encourage them earlier than this.  I do think good female role models could make a big difference… though it made no difference to me (I can’t think of any female scientists that particularly inspired me as a teenager).

As to me with my girls – I just plan to show my excitement for science, and encourage an enquiring mind.  I’m not sure I follow the ‘never tell the answer’ approach of the guardian article, but if my daughters are in the right frame of mind then I try to encourage them to solve problems or answer questions themselves (if they are not in the right frame of mind it’s better to give the answer & explain! In the end you want them to enjoy it, which you can’t if you get continuously frustrated).  My 3 year old is already showing promise for a good methodological brain… great at jigsaws and patiently watches me do something and copies meticulously.  But I must admit, I allow free creative reign when it comes to lego J I’ve always still harboured a secret desire to be an artist so I do like to allow as much creative flow as possible – but then this is pretty essential for scientists too!  I hope in the end my daughters will not be afraid of science & enjoy it.  However, I also hope that I equally encourage a love of literature, history, art, music,… and that the choice of career they end up with is one that is right for them. 

I guess as a parent, my take home message is to encourage an enquiring mind, but not to the detriment of enjoyment!  In my experience, if you enjoy it, you are more likely to want to keep doing it J  So maybe some of the suggestions in the article aren’t too bad taken with a pinch of common sense!

p.s. I will not be colour-coding according to the guardian article (are you kidding me?!!!)

pps. Alas my 3 year old is currently obsessed with princesses, so one of the favourite activities at the moment is to build a (freestyle) castle out of megablocks for the princess to live in and let down her long hair so a prince can climb up it.  Oh well, at least there is a science counter balance to the princess fetish in building a castle (which is great fun!).

ppps. If you want a giggle, read the counter-article ‘Boys& Science: The gender gap and how to maintain it’ J


  1. Hi Clare,

    I wonder about how to get students around the "brain blank" when it comes to maths. I teach a masters-level introductory environmental modelling class, and a few other classes that use quantitative methods. At some stage, I usually show a slide with a t-shirt that reads "I love maths", and I try to explain why maths is useful for exploring the logic of problems. (I'm planning to buy a t-shirt that reads "Shopping is hard. Let's do maths!")

    But I do wonder what is the best way to get students to embrace maths, rather than fear it. I have done some experiments with students showing how using mathematical solutions of problems can out-perform subjective judgements, and I think those experiments help students see the benefits. However, I'm not sure that it helps them think "I can do the maths too".

    I tend to say in my classes "You might find the maths hard, but you can do it." I also point out that people can find maths and quantitative modelling intimidating, and one of the aims of the class is to reduce that sense of intimidation. I'm really not sure that is helpful or not.

    There is some experimental evidence that telling people they are bad at maths can lower their performance. This is especially true for women and other people who might be exposed to a "stereotype threat". Perhaps saying "You can do this" can't hurt.

    Anyway, thanks for the post.



    1. Thanks for the comment Mick - plenty of food for thought! I don't think I've found the solution for resolving this brain blank at masters (or undergrad) level yet either. I remember tutoring at masters level and making a real breakthrough with a girl who just had a brain blank on maths 'I can't do it'. At the end of the session it was as though the mists had lifted and she could understand it. I was elated. But next class the mists had lowered again and we had to start from scratch. Really difficult! However, I have experienced a couple of really good lecturers in stats who make students feel like it's a lot easier than they thought... not quite sure that I've worked out what their secret is yet though... but making students realise that they can do it and it's not as hard as they thought is part of the key :)

      But if kids can think at a much younger age that maths isn't so difficult then it would make a big difference!


  2. Hey! As someone who has a huge problem with maths (I still use my fingers to add!) My only comment is that i know my problems started as early as 1st class in school & i blame the way it was thought. hopefully it is different 30 yrs later but i think if you don't 'get' maths early on you'll always have trouble with it & fear it. The only way i get around being a. scientist & not being able to add is my friend Excel ;-)

    1. It's amazing how many people who've read the blog have since recounted a bad experience that put them off maths at a young age! Some teachers have a lot to answer for! But then if a teacher at primary school themselves have a difficult relationship with maths it must be difficult not to transmit this onto the kids they are teaching... Thanks for the blog reply Daphne :) Clare