In September 2008 (16-18) I attended a Wellcome Trust sponsored conference in York England on the value of science education. We were invited to submit comments. Below is mine.
Keywords: Education; Growth & Innovation;
Dear Conference Delegates,
You invited comments coming out of the conference. The following is a short one.
I was greatly troubled by some of differences in the gender responses reported in the Relevance of Science Education survey.
I cannot recall the exact questions but one was along the lines as to whether the respondents wanted to work with their hands. The young women tended to say ‘no’. But don’t they do needle work and bandaging? Another result was that the young women were not favourably disposed towards technology. So they are not going to become nutritionists, nurses, physiotherapists or radiographers?
What this tells me is that the survey was answered with a particular framework, which defined science narrowly, in a way that made women seem anti-science. To be provocative, I suggest that what was happening was that science was being defined to be anti-women.
I know of no evidence that women are less interested in the real world than men, and I would conjecture that women may even be more concerned with scientific issues in their ordinary life, given their greater involvement with health issues.
This suggests that we may be tackling the gender problem the wrong way around. Instead of trying to make girls like science, perhaps we should try to make science like girls, that is expand our notions of what has to be taught and inspired.
I realise that I am saying that we need to expand the agenda beyond chemistry and physics to encompass biology (and ecology). But young women should not be long into biology, before they realise they need to understand concepts from physics (such as energy) and chemistry (the difference between a fluoride and fluorine).
Ultimately the best way of turning young women on to science may be by reaching out to them and their biological interests by a STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) course for biology.
PS. Perhaps I should mention that while I am an economist, my university training was in applied mathematics (including statistics) with physics and chemistry. I remain gripped by these subjects, but wish I had done more biology (which was taught dreadfully at my all boys’ school). I admit that in New Zealand biological sciences may have a relatively higher priority than in Britain, say, but insist that is all the more reason why our biologists need a sound base in chemistry and physics (and mathematics).