Yesterday I took an early flight down to London to attend an Institute of Physics (IoP) School Outreach Support Network meeting. I’m reasonably active in schools outreach work, and a little support never hurts. Overall the day was very positive, and I took home lots of little hints and tips that I might try and apply here, while it was also a chance to speak to range of academics that I might not normally come across. The slightly disappointing thing was that the flagship IoP activities in this area are funded in and for English schools exclusively. This ticks me off a little – a co-ordinated approach across the UK would seem appropriate, but I often find that people from ‘down South’ have difficultly dealing with a wholly different education system: there is a little of ‘I did A-levels, I understand them, the majority in the UK do them, so I need not concern myself further with anything else.’ This is disappointing, but it is a fact of life considering how eduction in the Uk is funded through devolved means – but I pay my membership fees to the IoP in London, and it’d be good to see maximum efficiency through shared schemes.
The main instrument the IoP is pushing is the ‘Stimulating Physics Network‘ which is designed to offer practical support and mentoring for physics teachers; pilot schemes are being set up with a range of partner schools who traditionally do not have much physics uptake at A level, with 35 support ‘coaches’ being available within the 420 partner schools to facilitate this. There is a great push to try and look and gender balance in physics (and through some of the schemes on offer, the wider school community) through direct work with girls, running workshops, offering peer mentoring support and senior pupil mentoring of junior pupils, increased STEM Ambassador support, highlighting gender aware pedagogy and the like. In general all positive and fairly sensible stuff, much of it on the back of previous IoP reports in this area: “It’s Different for Girls” and “Closing Doors“. The funding is there for 2-3 years and we’ll see how it all pans out. Additionally there is a scheme aimed at just London and surrounds funded by the Drayson Foundation. Physics does appear to have quite a big gender imbalance problem, and it’s good to see it being tackled head on on a number of fronts.
Other schemes currently include the ‘Your Life‘ initiative, which is led through private funding and is designed to promote better female participation in STEM subjects, aimed especially at 14-16 year olds. [Having just looked at their website, I am not quite sure what it’s all about, but hopefully the industry input will be a positive step]. There is also the Researchers in Schools project which will pay a premium of £40k a year for trainee teachers in physics and maths (for two years I believe), although I think the target number for the scheme is very low. This is aimed at PhD students and postdocs. It sounds attractive, but I can’t help feel that it would be somewhat divisive in a staff room.
We also heard from Gareth Edwards from the Open University about a RCUK funded scheme , the Schools-University Partnership which at the OU is designed to look at a number of different activities to promote engagement – open lectures, open inquiry, open dialogues and open creativity. The study will then look at the evidence base for the success of such projects. Gareth’s talk and little activity session was designed to highlight how one might measure success in these areas. The example used was in the ‘Open creativity’ section where students received media training, just like staff at the OU would and then were going to make a video making use of an element of current OU research. I think we’ll need to wait a wee while to see the project outcomes (it runs to 2015).
We also heard from a few physics academics on their outreach projects, one from Phil Furneaux from Lancaster about making better use of PhD students for outreach and the types of things they need if you are training them for such events; another from Heather MacRae from Venture Thinking and Helen Mason from University of Cambridge who produced an excellent project engaging pupils from an East London school to produce an iBook about the sun, “A big ball of fire“. The students got to visit Cambridge, took in a special lecture and worked on the multimedia aspects of putting their book together. The researchers were surprised at the range of media they got back. The idea can be readily ported to almost any subject area, although a lecture in your University might not be quite as swanky as one at Cambridge.
In the final talk we learned about the University of Bradford’s Robotic Telescope Project. This allows schools access to the telescope, which is in Tenerife, and to take real data and interact with astronomers. The idea being to provide a cross curricula opportunity which will hopefully also inspire pupils to stay with STEM.
So all in all a pretty good day, aside from the delayed flight home which mean to bed after 1am, and I have a few new ideas to try and push here, should I get a spare few minutes.
My daughter’s homework this week wasn’t too unusual – a little bit of maths, a reading book and some writing and comprehension. Her writing exercise was linked to her current project work, which is related to science this term. For the past few weeks she has been looking at magnets and some of their properties (in a simple sense, as she is only in Primary 3). What particularly caught my eye was the picture used to illustrate her assignment, which was to write a few sentences using appropriate adjectives and descriptions, of a hugely stereotypical ‘scientist’ in the old man Einstein mold with a set of test tubes.
In a generic sense this is fine, take an image and write some descriptive words and phrases about it and then put these into more context within some sentences. I can’t really argue with that. What I do take issue with is the tired old cliche of the stereotypical scientist. This is the type of thing that seeps into kids brains, and while it maybe not put them off, it does add to their perception of science as being uncool. At the moment I think the kids love science, they like doing experiments, and finding things out – but give them ten years of these stereotypes and it begins to become a problem. This is where it starts.
Additionally, I like to imagine my daughters are capable of anything, and that being much better scientists that I will ever amount to is well within their grasp – but again years of reinforcement of scientists being slightly disheveled old men will ultimately take its toll (I should point out that I am a dishevelled male scientist, so maybe I’m on shaky ground here). I made this point to my duaghter, and as she is a good pupil, she stuck up for her teacher. Apparently the character is from a computer game they use at school. But in a way I hope the teachers can do better. Then, of course, I realised that the teachers at primary school probably don’t know better – these are the stereotypes that they have grown up with. Teachers don’t have my same concern about the lack of female students in, for example, physics and engineering subjects and jobs because they are, through no fault of their own, unaware this is an issue. Science communication needs to extend much further than just the pupils.
I have watched with interest the development of, for example, projects like Sciencegrrl, and Geek Girl Scotland, with a dispassionate interest – I sympathise their cause and see the need for such iniatives, but I didn’t quite see how it fits in with me. Now I can – so I’ll get a Sciencegrrl calendar and pass it on to my local school, and as, for the moment, the Head of Physics at Dundee University, I will try to look at ways to improve our attractiveness to female applicants, and explore ways in which we might help out more in the community to try and stop such stereotypes staying as wide spread as they are.
Update: I have now ordered a Science Grrl calendar, so will donate it to my kids’ school when it arrives. You should get one too.