Monday, 18 March 2013

ScienceGrrl celebrates International Women's Day - with TASTE, in Uganda

I'm really chuffed - as we say in Yorkshire - to introduce this guest post from Amy Buchanan-Hughes, founder of The African Science Truck Experience (TASTE). TASTE runs a mobile science laboratory in rural Uganda so that students in underprivileged secondary schools can get a hands-on experience of science.

According to an earlier post on this blog, TASTE’s copy of the ScienceGrrl calendar is in the “most intriguing” location worldwide. Following the calendar’s first Official Engagement in the field this Friday, I thought ScienceGrrl’s fans would be interested to hear about how it has been inspiring Ugandan girls to think beyond their usual narrow horizons.

Uganda is a difficult place to be a woman. One day, I asked to borrow a bike to go from my village to the nearby town. I was met with awkward surprise from my friends. “But Madam Amy… if a girl rides a bicycle, she can lose her virginity, and then nobody will marry her.” The outrage that this stirred in me made me even more determined than usual to fight against the gender stereotypes!

International Women’s Day is a public holiday here, so we at TASTE had a whole day free from our regular teaching programme with the mobile lab. In honour of the occasion, I decided to hold seminars exclusively for girls in three different towns. We went as a group of four women scientists to talk about the rich variety of careers that are open to the girls, should they continue to study sciences at A-level and university. We elicited some giggles when we lined up to demonstrate the ‘evolutionary’ line of women scientists: from Holly, a gap year student who’s going to study civil engineering at Sheffield University, to Lina, who worked in the UK civil service following a Bachelor’s degree in Natural Sciences, to me, with a MSci in Biochemistry, and finally our esteemed guest Dr Elizabeth Kyewalabye, the third woman ever to qualify as a veterinary doctor in Uganda, now with a string of high profile scientific jobs to her name.

Dr Elizabeth Kyewalabye inspires girls to follow in her footsteps

First, I should explain why we were so keen to encourage the girls to pursue science in particular. While doing research for TASTE, I was particularly interested in local perceptions of gender and of how it affects scientific ability. I was not exactly thrilled by the results. For example, a comment on a major Ugandan news website says “Boys have more chances of studying by revising their notice [notes] while girls have less time due to their Nature. When girls are washing boys are studying and when boys are reading again girls are cooking… This cannot be changed because it is a Natural order.” Also, when I asked the head teacher of a local mixed-sex school why few girls study sciences, he replied that “Pretty girls spend all their time with boys instead of studying, so they only have time to do easy subjects like arts. Science subjects are harder so only ugly girls can do science subjects.” Charming.

With these attitudes commonly accepted as truth, girls quickly lose confidence about their ability in the sciences, and their performance slips. We teach from Senior 1 (the equivalent of year 7 or 8 in the UK) to Senior 4 (when students sit their O-level exams), and in all of the thirteen schools we currently work with, I have seen the same story: in Senior 1, the girls dominate the science lessons, answering and asking questions enthusiastically, and taking the lead in small group work. By Senior 4, however, they are quiet and reserved, allowing the boys to take over, and suddenly discovering something very interesting on their desk when they are asked a question.

During our Women’s Day seminars, we used our own experiences to tell the girls that their gender should never put them off studying sciences and choosing science careers. We then focused on introducing career paths that most students have never heard of. Students here aspire to be doctors, nurses or engineers, because they have heard that these careers are well paid and respected. These are all great jobs and, indeed, they are very much needed in Uganda. But there is a whole wealth of other careers that these young people could and should be aiming towards, that they simply have no awareness of.

Students are told to aim for good jobs, but there is usually little or no career advice provided by their schools

A lot of the problem lies with the local teachers, many of whom rarely venture beyond their own town. On the first page of students’ exercise books in Senior 1, I found the opening question of “Why do we study Physics?” The answers, dictated by teachers, were typically listed as: “To pass exams. To understand physics. To get jobs as engineers.”

However, the real horizons are wider than they can possibly imagine. In 2011, the Ministry of Education in Uganda published a list of the eight most marketable career fields in Uganda for the near future:
  1. Health and medical services
  2. Biotechnology
  3. Agriculture, forestry and natural resources
  4. Information Communication Technology (ICT) Applications
  5. Fisheries and aquaculture
  6. Environment
  7. Energy – solar/wind
  8. Manufacturing and process engineering
Reading down this list, I noticed one thing that they all have in common: unsurprisingly, they all rely heavily on sciences. TASTE’s mantra in lessons is to “Illustrate, instruct and inspire”, and the seminars gave us a great opportunity to do the “inspire” part, by showing the girls how a background in science could lead to them doing jobs that could improve not only their own lives, but their whole country, and even the planet.
Up until this point in the seminars, the girls were paying attention carefully, but they were very serious. However, when we brought out the ScienceGrrl calendar, their faces lit up.

Sometimes language is a barrier, and culture even more so, but each picture spoke a thousand words. Suddenly, our words became reality, as we told the girls about each woman in each picture: “This lady tries to make artificial bones out of chemicals because she thinks we could use them as building materials someday” – cool!

“This lady is finding ways of using sunlight to make energy, without polluting the environment” – how useful that would be for Uganda, which currently relies almost exclusively on hydroelectric power. And how about “This lady just loves science so much that she writes songs about it!” – that got the loudest laugh of the day.
After showing them all the pictures, we passed the calendars around, and suddenly we couldn’t keep order as the girls crowded around trying to find out more.

For the hundreds of girls we teach, there was no better way for us to communicate ‘YES YOU CAN’ than by showing them these real examples of real women scientists. In the end, we literally had to drag the calendars away to move to the next school, promising as we left that we would bring the calendars back for the girls to read at another time. My hope is that reading the biographies will fire their curiosity, and that in a few years to come some of these girls might even feature in a Ugandan version of the calendar!

Friday, 15 March 2013

Hatching a plan – the ScienceGrrl strategy for 2013 onwards

ScienceGrrl started out as a reaction to *that* EC video, which spawned the idea to create a series of images representing who female scientists are and what they do – the ScienceGrrl 2013 calendar. In the process we collected a network of people who are passionate about passing on their love of science, technology, engineering and mathematics to the next generation. We could have just stopped at the calendar... but I wasn't alone in thinking it would be a tragedy to dissolve this network of enthusiastic volunteers, when there were other things left to do in tackling the problems we had highlighted.

As I've said from the beginning, ScienceGrrl isn't “mine”, it belongs to all our members. Also, I know we are not the only ones who are working on tackling the under-representation of women in science and complex jumble of factors that influence that. So we went out to consultation, and following that consultation, many phone calls, a fair amount of head-scratching and the use of some fairly epic spreadsheets (love a good spreadsheet, me) we came up with our strategy, which was launched at the AGM and voted in unanimously.

You can read the strategy in all its glory here, but it was beautifully summarised at the AGM by artists Adrian and Rachel Haak. I find these 'visual minutes' useful in terms of helping me recall the major themes of the discussion and how they inter-relate, but more than that, they remind me of the scale of our ambition. It's audacious, but I find that inspiring rather than intimidating. I particularly love how collaboration, partnership and flexibility are at the centre, represented as our DNA, with specific projects shown as additional - expressions of that definitive ethic. The whole drawing is below - click on it to enlarge.

Whilst we've big ideas and ambitions, we're also aware than Rome (or gender equality in science) isn't built in a day. It's important, particularly as a grassroots network of volunteers, that we take developments at a sustainable pace. So this year is a year of trying things out, developing collaborations, finding out where we're most needed and the difference we're best placed to make. And we intend to have a lot of fun doing all this cool stuff. Watch this space.

If you'd like to fully get on board with what we're doing, receive regular updates from me, be the first to hear about invite-only events, and eventually (sometime this year!) gain access to a members-only discussion forum on our website, please sign up as a ScienceGrrl member. It'll only cost you £5 for a year and all of that will go towards resourcing ScienceGrrl's work. For an application form, please e-mail us here and we'll be in touch.

Wednesday, 13 March 2013

ScienceGrrl and International Women's Day

International Women's Day celebrates the achievements of women worldwide. In Russia (and elsewhere, I believe) it's a public holiday. Here at ScienceGrrl, we wanted to take the opportunity this presented to highlight the great work that women are doing in science. The recent WISE report highlighted that only 13% of the STEM workforce are women, but that's still 693,000 women doing interesting and valuable work.

We've had female scientists wandering around science museums in London and Manchester, wearing large badges proclaiming 'I'm a SCIENTIST talk to me' and occasionally jumping on a purple soapbox to tell people what we do - Jess Breen and Becky Wraggs Sykes have already blogged on this. In Manchester, we teamed up with Manchester Girl Geeks to offer soft electronics and mathematical magic workshops, run by women, to highlight the creativity of electronics and the fun you can have with maths. We've had representatives at a WISE 'Mothers of Invention' reception at the Science Museum and the Suffrage Science celebrations of women in STEM. And this morning, I joined a panel discussion concerning women in science at the Women of the World Festival, with Emily Sidonie-Grossman, Maggie Aderin-Pocock, Marieme Jamme and Kate Bellingham. What a privilege even to be added to that list!

We talked about the myriad factors influencing the under-representation of women in science, from gendered marketing of toys, low confidence, peer pressure, gender stereotypes, preconceptions about absence of creativity in science, lack of emphasis on contextual teaching, scarcity of visible role models and women in leadership, cultural expectations of family dynamics (as summed up here, by The Flick)...but it was by no means negative. Kate Bellingham, the chair, did a great job of stopping me blathering on, fielding the many questions from the audience and encouraging points for action. We could have talked for hours, and I wish we'd had more time to hatch firm plans to address the issues raised. Perhaps a breakout session (with coffee and cake, obviously) is needed next year?

I was particularly encouraged by hearing from Marieme Jamme about the growth of technology hubs in Africa, South America and the Middle East, and the leading role of women in this context. It confirms to me again that the lack of women in STEM has nothing to do with women's inherent aptitude for these subjects, but everything to do with culture, education and expectation. We've been pushing against these barriers in the UK for generations, but I take inspiration from Marieme and others like her that change is – and will be – possible. Until we do, the potential of so many brilliant female scientists will remain untapped and the world will be lacking the fruits of their labours and their genius ideas.