I’ve just joined WISE, an organisation that encourages people in industry and education to increase the participation and success of women in science (hence the acronym WISE), technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).
To be honest I hadn’t heard about WISE until recently, and I am a woman in science! Popular press frequently focuses on politics and the media, but, like many organisations and industries gender parity is an issue for science too.
Perhaps women like me, making a song and dance about science will help, because there are some amazing role models: Jennifer Doudna developed CRISPA, a gene therapy that promises to revolutionise treatments of hundreds of diseases; Nina Tandon is the founder of EpiBone, a company that grows human bone from stem cells; Cori Bargmann is uncovering the causes of neurological conditions such as Alzheimer’s and autism.
Women have been active scientists throughout history: best known is the amazing Marie Curie who discovered two elements, was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, and the first person to win a second Nobel; Ada Lovelace, widely considered to be the founder of scientific computing and the first computer programmer; Rosalind Franklin, British chemist and crystallographer, best known for her essential research in elucidating the structure of DNA; Mary Anning, the fossil hunter whose discoveries were some of the most significant geological finds of all time.
Which brings me to my own children, two girls and a boy, who’ve been hunting fossils since they could walk and delivering lambs before they started school, I guess you could say we live a ‘sciencey’ life in rural Suffolk. They experiment with everything from serious biology (learning to dress game and name the organs before they could read), applied physics (what happens when you apply a stone to the dining room window, at speed!) behavioural psychology (training our donkeys to come in the house) and kitchen chemistry (using bicarbonate of soda in place of flour to bake a bigger cake).
But, my children are not unusual, ALL children love to find things out by doing, they love a hands-on experience: they don’t want to watch Mummy deliver a lamb; they want to get their hands dirty! They don’t want to watch a teacher doing science in school, they want to do it themselves. That is why I am passionate about the Schools Science Project, of which I am the coordinator at West Suffolk College – creating practical science activities for primary school children to do themselves in lessons. It’s in its infancy, but the idea is that every child should do practical science each week for 10 weeks of every term. Every half term teachers will come into the college and I will teach them the science behind each activity, so they feel empowered to deliver them with understanding and enthusiasm.
I believe that every one of us is a scientist, it’s the one school subject that all of us do every day, we literally live and breathe science – but, as a society, we don’t realise it. You mention science and people start using adjectives like ‘boring’ and ‘difficult’, but it’s just not It’s so important to our daily lives and the more you learn, the more it enriches your life: you have a cold and the doctor won’t give you antibiotics – why? A simple understanding of the difference between bacteria and viruses will tell you that. Having knowledge empowers people to make educated choices, think of the global warming debate – the list is endless. My point is science is everywhere and we need to follow the lead of our children and get out there and try it.
So why do people feel intimidated or even afraid of scientists? I have my own quite strong views on the subject, ranging from politics to lack of donkeys in dining rooms. To hear from a real expert on the topic I would encourage you to attend the next free Edmund Lecture on Wednesday, November 8, 6-7pm, at West Suffolk College. Peter Mandler, Professor of Modern Cultural History at the University of Cambridge will discuss ‘Is current education turning students off science’ – it promises to be a very interesting hour, I hope to see you there!
-- Vic Fiebelkorn is Primary Science Coordinator at West Suffolk College