Blog Archives

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

New and notable – selected publications from the Science Communication Unit

The last 6 months have been a busy time for the Unit, we are now fully in the swing of the 2016/17 teaching programme for our MSc Science Communication and PgCert Practical Science Communication students, we’ve been working on a number of exciting research projects and if that wasn’t enough to keep us busy, we’ve also produced a number of exciting publications.

We wanted to share some of these recent publications to provide an insight into the work that we are involved in as the Science Communication Unit.

Science for Environment Policy

Science for Environment Policy

Science for Environment Policy is a free news and information service published by Directorate-General Environment, European Commission. It is designed to help the busy policymaker keep up-to-date with the latest environmental research findings needed to design, implement and regulate effective policies. In addition to a weekly news alert we publish a number of longer reports on specific topics of interest to the environmental policy sector.

Recent reports focus on:

Ship recycling: The ship-recycling industry — which dismantles old and decommissioned ships, enabling the re-use of valuable materials — is a major supplier of steel and an important part of the economy in many countries, such as Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and Turkey. However, mounting evidence of negative impacts undermines the industry’s contribution to sustainable development. This Thematic Issue presents a selection of recent research on the environmental and human impacts of shipbreaking.

Environmental compliance assurance and combatting environmental crime: How does the law protect the environment? The responsibility for the legal protection of the environment rests largely with public authorities such as the police, local authorities or specialised regulatory agencies. However, more recently, attention has been focused on the enforcement of environmental law — how it should most effectively be implemented, how best to ensure compliance, and how best to deal with breaches of environmental law where they occur. This Thematic Issue presents recent research into the value of emerging networks of enforcement bodies, the need to exploit new technologies and strategies, the use of appropriate sanctions and the added value of a compliance assurance conceptual framework.

Synthetic biology and biodiversity: Synthetic biology is an emerging field and industry, with a growing number of applications in the pharmaceutical, chemical, agricultural and energy sectors. While it may propose solutions to some of the greatest challenges facing the environment, such as climate change and scarcity of clean water, the introduction of novel, synthetic organisms may also pose a high risk for natural ecosystems. This future brief outlines the benefits, risks and techniques of these new technologies, and examines some of the ethical and safety issues.

Socioeconomic status and noise and air pollution: Lower socioeconomic status is generally associated with poorer health, and both air and noise pollution contribute to a wide range of other factors influencing human health. But do these health inequalities arise because of increased exposure to pollution, increased sensitivity to exposure, increased vulnerabilities, or some combination? This In-depth Report presents evidence on whether people in deprived areas are more affected by air and noise pollution — and suffer greater consequences — than wealthier populations.

Educational outreach

We’ve published several research papers exploring the role and impact of science outreach. Education outreach usually aims to work with children to influence their attitudes or knowledge about STEM – but there are only so many scientists and engineers to go around. So what if instead we influenced the influencers? In this publication, Laura Fogg-Rogers describes her ‘Children as Engineers’ project, which paired student engineers with pre-service (student) teachers.

Fogg-Rogers, L. A., Edmonds, J. and Lewis, F. (2016) Paired peer learning through engineering education outreach. European Journal of Engineering Education. ISSN 0304-3797 Available from: http://eprints.uwe.ac.uk/29111

Teachers have been shown in numerous research studies to be critical for shaping children’s attitudes to STEM subjects, and yet only 5% of primary school teachers have a STEM higher qualification. So improving teacher’s science teaching self-efficacy, or the perception of their ability to do this job, is therefore critical if we want to influence young minds in science.

The student engineers and teachers worked together to perform outreach projects in primary schools and the project proved very successful. The engineers improved their public engagement skills, and the teachers showed significant improvements to their science teaching self-efficacy and subject knowledge confidence. The project has now been extended with a £50,000 funding grant from HEFCE and will be run again in 2017.

And finally, Dr Emma Weitkamp considers how university outreach activities can be designed to encourage young people to think about the relationships between science and society. In this example, Emma worked with Professor Dawn Arnold to devise an outreach project on plant genetics and consider how this type of project could meet the needs of both teachers, researchers and science communicators all seeking (slightly) different aims.emma-book

A Cross Disciplinary Embodiment: Exploring the Impacts of Embedding Science Communication Principles in a Collaborative Learning Space. Emma Weitkamp and Dawn Arnold in Science and Technology Education and Communication, Seeking Synergy. Maarten C. A. van der Sanden, Delft University of Technology, The Netherlands and Marc J. de Vries (Eds.) Delft University of Technology, The Netherlands. 

We hope that you find our work interesting and insightful, keep an eye on this blog – next week we will highlight our publications around robots, robot ethics, ‘fun’ in science communication and theatre.

Details of all our publications to date can be found on the Science Communication Unit webpages.

 

Knowledge is power?

Research shows that audiences at a health science festival prefer lectures.

We all know the debates about deficit versus dialogue, but what do audiences prefer? This was the central research question in my recent study looking at a health science festival in New Zealand.

Science festivals offer an interesting environment to explore preferences for format design, as they usually feature a huge variety of different event styles. The science festival in question was held in Auckland, New Zealand, and focussed on health science research around the brain and psychology. Held as part of international Brain Awareness Week, ‘Brain Day’ attracts over 3000 people to this free one-day annual event- not an insignificant number in a country of just 4.5 million people!

The festival formats under question were lectures, discussions, a community expo, laboratory experiments and a general good day out. Festival entrants were handed a questionnaire to fill in, and could return it anonymously to a drop-box at the exits, with a prize draw incentive. The experiment was repeated over three years, and in total we reached a sample of 661 people.

So which format did they prefer? Overwhelmingly, this sample significantly preferred lectures; with 76% ranking them the main attraction, 89% attending them, and 84% stating lectures were the most useful. This was irrespective of age, gender, education, or the year the festival was run. In open response questions participants described their reasons – stating that ‘knowledge is power’. Participants were attending the festival to learn something new, and lectures presented a good way to hear about research and expert opinion.

But wait – don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater! We conclude that all formats have a part to play in the science communication landscape. Over two-thirds of the sample visited more than one format, and indeed, laboratory experiments were the second choice for family visitors. Yet however you look at it, the much derided format of lectures is still clearly popular with audiences.

Laura Fogg-Rogers is a Research Fellow in the SCU at UWE.
@laurafoggrogers

This post was originally published in the STEM Communicators Network newsletter Issue 32.The research article it is based on is available in Science Communication 37 (4).