Category Archives: STEM

Are women part of mankind?

The ‘leaky pipeline’ has been in the press again thanks to the now infamous Google staff memo  and the BBC2 programme about ‘no more boys and girls’. Adapted from her original article in the Journal of Science Communication, Laura Fogg-Rogers considers what this has to do with science communication.

To boldly go where no (one or man?) has gone before…

As a science geek growing up in the 1980s, I wasn’t aware of the cultural idea that women who did STEM were considered to be strange. It turns out that this was in fact the tail-end of the gender-neutral movement and indeed I attempted to live my life by the idiom, “To boldly go, where no one has gone before”. It wasn’t until my late childhood that I realised that this was a ‘politically-correct’ adaptation of the original 1960s Star Trek catchphrase, which urged us “To boldly go, where no man has gone before”. It is a subtle word change, but a whole new world of meaning for a little girl with big hopes.

Of course, I have since been thrown out of my utopia and metaphorically crashed into the societal expectations waiting for both myself and my two children (a girl and a boy). Gender roles, expectations, and futures are reinforced in society through multiple interactions every day. Right from day one, girls are given pink dolls and soft teddies, and boys are given loud cars and construction tools. Going against the grain takes exceptional tenacity and strength of character, or perhaps a blinkered view of social norms. This is why we still consider it unusual for men to become nurses or nannies, or women to become mechanics or soldiers (or neurosurgeons in this video).

Is STEM socially acceptable for women?

Humans are social creatures, and more than anything, most of us want to fit in. It is therefore common sense that the things which we see others doing around us, are the things which we want to copy or be part of. The psychologist Albert Bandura termed this ‘social cognitive theory’ (previously social learning theory). This explains how an individual’s learning is not only related to their personal capabilities and experiences, but also by observing others; this can be through social interactions, life experiences, or outside media influences.

Projects like Inspiring the Future show how far we have to go. It is why we specifically recruited women into our Robots vs Animals project to give a 50/50 gender representation, even if it proved controversial . Fundamentally, if girls don’t see women being received positively in STEM roles, then they will never think that STEM is a ‘normal’ thing for women to do.

You can’t be what you can’t see

I therefore argue that if we wish to influence whether it is considered socially acceptable for women to take part in STEM, we need to change the representation of STEM, scientists, and engineers in all aspects of society. The saying goes that ‘it is the straw which broke the camel’s back’, and so it is the everyday ‘microaggressions’ which I believe can make the most difference. We are all responsible for reinforcing gender norms and behaviours, and so we can all make an effort to change!

  1. Try to use gender neutral language where possible e.g. firefighter instead of fireman, police officer instead of policeman etc. And don’t be afraid to speak up and challenge others if they state what boys and girls can do, even in everyday social situations.
  2. Use the pronoun ‘she’ instead of ‘he’ in stories or descriptions of professions. You’ll be surprised about how odd it sounds (which says a lot…)!
  3. Show pictures of women as the active archetype, instead of a passive bystander. For instance, in a presentation about what engineers do, simply showing a picture of a woman being an engineer is very powerful (you don’t even have to mention that she is a woman).
  4. Support projects like the Hypatia Project to improve science capital for girls and families from socially deprived areas.
  5. Support projects in the workplace to tackle pay disparity and employment rights, such as the Athena Swan project in higher education.

If we all work together, maybe we really can reach a future where we can ‘boldly go where no one has gone before’!

Laura Fogg-Rogers

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Engineering in Society – new module for engineering citizenship

Undergraduate student engineers at UWE Bristol will get the chance to learn about engineering citizenship from September.

The Science Communication Unit is launching a new module to highlight the importance of professional development, lifelong learning, and the competencies and social responsibilities required to be a professional engineer.

It follows a successful public engagement project led by Laura Fogg-Rogers in in 2014, called Children as Engineers. The new module is being funded by HEFCE to advance innovation in higher education curricula.

The 65 students, who are in the third year of their BEng or MEng degrees, will learn about the engineering recruitment shortfall and the need to widen the appeal of the profession to girls and boys. They will then develop their communication and public engagement skills in order to become STEM Ambassadors for the future.

The module is unique in that it pairs the student engineers with pre-service teachers taking BEd degrees on to be peer mentors to each other. The paired students will work together to deliver an engineering outreach activity in primary schools, as well as respectively mentoring each other in communication skills and STEM knowledge.

The children involved in the project will present their engineering designs back to the student engineers at a conference at UWE in 2018. Previous research shows that it positively changes children’s views about what engineering is and who can be an engineer .

Teacher Asima Qureshi of Meadowbrook Primary school in Bradley Stoke says;

“The Children as Engineers Project was a very successful project in our school. The highlight was the opportunity to showcase their designs at the university and be able to explain the science behind it. It has hopefully inspired children to become future engineers.”

The pilot project was also successful at improving teachers’ STEM subject knowledge confidence and self-efficacy to teach it. This is vitally important, as only 5% of primary school teachers have a higher qualification in STEM, and yet attitudes to science and engineering are formed before age 11.

curiosity connectionsProfessional engineers in the Bristol region are invited to learn from the project and mentor the students as part of the new Curiosity Connections Bristol network . Delegates are welcome to attend the inaugural conference on November 23rd 2017 to share learning with other STEM Ambassadors and professional teachers in the region.

Laura Fogg-Rogers, University of the West of England (UWE) Bristol UK

FET Award: STEM outreach at Luckwell Primary

This year, I have been lucky enough to receive a FET Award to promote STEM at a local primary school in south Bristol. Our key aims have been to use the expertise of UWE staff and students to deliver events which not only encourage children to pursue STEM careers, but also support teachers with some of the harder to achieve National Curriculum objectives.

Our first activity involved all students in Key Stage 2 – 120 in total. Inspired by the LED cards on Sparkfun, and ably assisted by fellow FARSCOPE students Hatem and Katie, we ran a lesson in which students used copper tape, LEDs and coin cell batteries to create a light-up Christmas tree or fire-side scene. Our aim was not only to show the students that electronics is fun and accessible, but to re-reinforce the KS2 National Curriculum objectives relating to electricity and conductivity.

Although a little hectic, the students really enjoyed the task and the teachers felt that the challenge of interacting with such basic components (as opposed to more “kid friendly” kits), really helped to drive home our lesson objectives.

To re-reinforce the Christmas card activity, we also ran a LED Creativity contest over the Christmas break. Students were given a pack containing some batteries, LEDs and copper tape and tasked with creating something cool.

Entries ranged from cameras with working flash  to scale replicas of the school. The full range of entries and winners can be found here. Overall, we were blown away by the number and quality of the entries.

Our second focus was introducing students to programming. To this end, we have been running a regular code club every Monday, this time supported by volunteers from UWE alongside FARSCOPE student Jasper. In code club, we use a mix of materials to introduce students to the programming language scratch. We currently have 16 students attending each week and recently were lucky enough to receive a number of BBC Micro bits.

Alongside Code club, we also ran a workshop with the Year 5 class, to directly support the national curriculum objectives related to programming. Students were given Tortoise robots (Built by FARSCOPE PhD students, in honour of some of the very first autonomous robots, built in Bristol by Grey Walter). Children had to program and debug an algorithm capable of navigating a maze.

As the outreach award comes to an end, we are planning a final grand event. Each year the students at Luckwell School get to spend a week learning about real-life money matters in “Luckwell Town”. During this week, students do not attend lessons – instead, they can choose to work at a number of jobs to earn Luckwell Pounds. This year, we will be supporting Luckwell Town by helping to run a Games Development studio. Students will use Scratch to design and program simple games for other students to play in the Luckwell Arcade.

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As with our prior events, the success will depend on volunteers from UWE donating their time and expertise to support us.

Luckwell Town will take place every morning of the week commencing June 12th. We are looking for volunteers to support us, so please respond to the Doodle poll if you are interested.

Martin Garrad, PhD student in robotics