Maggie Shiels

Science and the sexes

  • Maggie Shiels
  • 11 Dec 09, 14:54 GMT

A big conundrum facing the US, the UK and many other European countries is this: how do you keep young people engaged in science and mathematics, and how especially do you keep young girls fired up about the subjects?

Sally RideIn a chat with Dr Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, she talked a lot about the stereotypes that create and sustain the situation: girls being led to think that science is a boys' subject; preconceptions of science as dull; the idea that it's just too downright hard.

I certainly remember those messages seeping into my brain, even though I was actually - I'm happy to say - a whizz at trigonometry and consistently scored top marks in my accounts exams.

Dr Ride points out that all children are interested in science. It is innate. They are born curious. They like to know how the world works, how their bodies work, how their favourite toy works and so on. If you are a parent, you know that at a certain age the favourite question of every child is "Why?".

While these stereotypes have persisted for years, Dr Ride believes that the issue has to be tackled at this early stage in order for there to be change up the pipeline.

She also told me that the country has to get excited again about maths and science and she applauds President Obama's efforts with his newly-launched Educate to Innovate initiative:

"On and off, there has been political will to changes things - but this feels different. This feels very special with this president, and perhaps that is because he has two young daughters and is very focused on the importance of a science education."

And while she laments the present situation, Dr Ride recalls how the space race of the 1950s and '60s caught the imagination of the nation:

"When the Soviets launched Sputnik, it completely changed the focus of US education. Suddenly, maths and science became the most important things that could be taught to our kids.

"It became a national priority - and it became really cool to want to be a scientist or an engineer. A lot of kids grew up dreaming of building rockets to the stars. Over the years, we have lost that magic, that focus, that spark."

For years, Dr Ride says, she has worked to redress the balance and to get children hooked on science and maths - especially young girls, who tend to drop the ball on the subject when they are ten and 11.

She runs a company that creates programmes and products to educate and inspire children in these subjects, and with ExxonMobil, she has set up a science academy aimed at helping teachers learn how to get children excited about science.

Sally RideDr Ride told me that science was in her blood from a very young age and that she just never lost the passion for the subject. Her plans to either get a job as a research scientist or as a teacher went up in smoke when she saw an advert in the local Stanford student newspaper:

"I had just finished my PhD and was about to start applying for jobs when I saw the Nasa advert. They were looking for astronauts and it was the first time in ten years that they were taking applications and they were looking for women. It was when I saw that ad, that I knew this was something I wanted to do. Something that I had to do."

Dr Ride was one of 8,000 people who applied, and only one of six women included in a class of 35.

And the rest, as they say, is history as Dr Ride became the first American woman and the then-youngest American to enter space as a member on Space Shuttle Challenger.


  • Comment number 1.

    In my view there are 2 reasons why kids don't do science and maths.

    They are hard subjects. Why struggle with maths A-level when you can take an easy choice like a media subject, most Universities and employers just look at UCAS points so unless it's a specalised field physics is valued the same as modern dance.

    Science has got boring, health and safety has taken away all the fun experiments so all there is for kids is looking as cell structures from a textbook or an experiment on a video. My old teachers used to tell us about the days of playing with mecury (rolling balls of it around the desk), hot oil (hot cooking oil + fire + water = 10 foot flames) and rockets (plastic bottles filled with water and air under pressure).
    Until the experiments come back kids will walk away.

  • Comment number 2.

    There is not enough easy/quick money to be made in the sciences.

    Kids see the likes of X-Factor contestants and other "celebs" making a quick buck and they want that, they don't see scientists making a lot of money, thus kids don't take up the subjects, instead taking up media studies.

    People go where the money is, especially if it can be obtained quickly.

  • Comment number 3.

    @ 1

    "They are hard subjects. Why struggle with maths A-level when you can take an easy choice like a media subject, most Universities and employers just look at UCAS points so unless it's a specalised field physics is valued the same as modern dance."

    This is not strictly true. Yes these subjects are given an equal number of UCAS points but most degrees will request one or two specific subjects as well as any others. Languages are an obvious case, as is engineering, where maths and physics are often compulsory for entry.

    "Science has got boring, health and safety has taken away all the fun experiments so all there is for kids is looking as cell structures from a textbook or an experiment on a video. My old teachers used to tell us about the days of playing with mecury (rolling balls of it around the desk), hot oil (hot cooking oil + fire + water = 10 foot flames) and rockets (plastic bottles filled with water and air under pressure).
    Until the experiments come back kids will walk away."

    Actually we did a number of these experiments at school (I'm 19 so it wasn't all that long ago!), with the notable exception of mercury for obvious reasons. Ever heard of soapy gas bubbles? A great laugh in chemistry at the end of term.

    Personally I don't think that any special emphasis should be placed on getting girls into science. People go where their interests lie, and in most cases, boys are more interested than girls in some sciences, though when we pass a pharmacy or forensics class at uni there seems to be more girls than boys. And I don't see any effort trying to get boys into fashion or beauty courses!

  • Comment number 4.

    It's a shame Carl Sagan isn't here to set us straight.

    He realised the fundamental problem with society. We live in a world which revolves around science, and yet most people couldn't even tell you how a television or a computer can do what it does, and an appalling number are even fuzzy on how light bulbs work.

    It's an foul broth of high-science and high-ignorance, that, sooner or later, will blow up in our faces.

    Education is, as always, the key. We need to get across the importance of science to our civilisation, its relevance as a way of thinking and its nature as one of our noblest endeavours.

    Just having completed secondary school science, I can safely say that it is in need of a major revamping. None of the applications, wonder or elegance of it come across in school. If all my information about science came only from school lessons, then I would probably have given it up in year six.

    Fortunately, I'm blessed with an autodidactic temperament, so I was able to take a look at what science is really like, and I'm determined to follow a career in it.

    And yes, the experiments are boring. Counting bubbles in an enzyme-starch solution gets old fast.

    But the raw material is there. It's up to the educators to get more of it across.

  • Comment number 5.

    Universities are able to chnarge different fees for different courses, so sceicne and engineering will always cost more than other subjects. While I don't think that puts off children in early secondry school, it will chngne the chosen degree subject of some.

  • Comment number 6.

    As a female electronic engineering lecturer I do spend a lot of time talking to young women about engineering & science. Interestingly enough I am married to anothe scientist in the female-domianted environment of pharmacy. Indeed our world does revolve around science and engineering, but trying to encourage young people of whatever gender into engineering - particularly my own field is not easy.

    I have fun with some fo the material it each - it is not easy to do exciting experiments around networks given the nature of what I would want to do. Then again some of the stuff I do on digital electronics gets the students really involved. I love my chosen career and am always trying to encourage young people into considering it - but part of the issue I have is with the eprception of engineers within the general public of the UK although I will admit that is changing.

    Education is the key - getting children exicted about maths and science from a young age is the key - it is a pity that so few STEM graduates go into primary school teaching as you do need to catch them young. Part of the problem is the huge amount of theory that is needed to truly understand the great ideas - this has to eb taught before you can get into the more innovative and exciting material.

    As to the chrages - I can say we charge no different fees for udnergraduate Home/EU students where I teach on our courses than on the arts courses. There is a slight difference at PG level, but even the overseas fees a pretty much the same - and on the whole our graduates have a greater earning potential than many.

  • Comment number 7.

    Maybe a survey should be done on presenters of TV programmes, studying the ad-lib messages that are casually promoted and that are not related to the programme material. Often there's a theme of: I'm terrible at maths, engineering and science is boring, I can't do anything practical, leave it to the geeks etc. It's inevitable that they're going to promote things they're good at and create barriers where they justify lack of skill.

  • Comment number 8.

    As a woman holding of a doctorate in a hard science (physics) and a foreigner working in the US, I can say that I have been chased out of the field by the behavior of my US and Chinese male colleagues; I am utterly disgusted by their attitudes which were more or less subtle. This kind of annoyance is not always in your face, but is adding day by day, and they would succeed to drive you out sooner or later. One needs very thick skin to succeed in the ultimate bastion of male chauvinism, the sciences like physics (and applications of it).

  • Comment number 9.

    There is a fundamental problem with science education in this country and that is that it is far FAR too focused on exams and marks and no attempt is made to teach the beauty and majesty of the subject.

    I always found science quite dull in school, but then luckily I had a great teacher during college and had the epiphany which got me onto a scientific degree course. And FINALLY they are showing the elegance and beauty behind the subject. Why on earth can they not teach that at school instead of just drilling in the facts without showing any logical meaning to it.

  • Comment number 10.

    Your all missing the point.

    The problem is our school and exams systems.

    Every kids favourite question at one time or another is "Why?", yet schools are more and more often failing to give them an answer. We are told that to get the answer for this mathermatical problem we use "this equation" or "that method" and then are made to practie them over nd over so come exam time we will know the procedure. We are taught how to generate the answer but very rarely is it ever explained to us why, and I dont mean some long-winded mathermatical proof as to why but a simple practical example.

    We are taught that two chemicals put together have a certain reaction, but very rarely (at least until university, A-Levels at least) is it explained to us as to why it happens. The same is true for most other science subjects and is evena problem in arts as everyone is taught to see the same things.

    The emphasis on passing rather than learning is rapidly degrading the ability of our society to think for itself, to be able to go back to base principals. This has been going on for at least 25 years as I was taught that way and I am 30, from speaking to kids today it seems to be getting wore, not better.

    One of the best things I have ever done is go back to university last year to do a scientific research degree - I left sciences behind in favoure of engineering (though I did do maths A-Level) and business at aged 16 btu always had an interest and used to drive teachers nuts by questioning why the things they were telling me worked when all they wanted us to do was to take them as guarenteed assumptions and keep quiet. Now I have begun learning about bonding, phases, electrochemistry, physical metallurgy and the like at a base level in orer to grasp the more complex elements of the course and it's amazing how much of what I was just told to take for granted previously now makes perfect sense to me. Had I been taught like that at age 12 or 13 maybe I would have continued with it further, I certainly would have had more of an interest ovr the past 15 years.

  • Comment number 11.

    Why can't any of you see the bleeding obvious? It is far better, for women of ALL intellectual abilities, to stay home and look after the children. Work, especially those in the SET fields, consist of long hours, poor pay and little promotion. While "stupid" women may have no choice and see parenthood as a way out, increasingly highly educated women are coming to the same conclusion. A good case is a former college friend of mine; she got through to Oxford studying Engineering, her mind was a league apart from the rest of us in A Level Physics, and guess what? She is now married, at home with two children.

    She realises that the future lies not in working your soul off for the advancement of mankind, or career progression; but in raising your children up the way you want. As a man, I envy women for having that choice - the man, of whatever intelligence, is expected to work and progress in his career. Seldom do they get the opportunity to become the primary carer of his children, something that I would take over being a future Einstein, any day.

  • Comment number 12.

    I think science is a boy. Because if you see in past, you just find male scientists who conquer the world in almost every field. It is just because smooth working towards their aim. This is 21st century. People do not want to sit lazy. If people have time, they want to spend their time in a good place, where they can learn something. They can earn money, make relationship etc. So I am introducing you a wonderful website. You just visit; I hope you will find great things. Thanks


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