Women and science education

Margot Kelly is a Sydney journalist with an interest in the issue of young women’s engagement in science. She tweeted earlier today about the fact that she dropped science at fifteen and now thinks that she was wrong. She has also put together a radio report on the issue. As a father of two young girls, I am also concerned. I want my daughters to see the beauty and wonder of science, whether they ultimately decide to make a career in it or not. I worry that they might not give it a fair go.

I have mentioned Margot’s radio report before. It is quite unsurprising that inquiry learning was offered by some of the contributors as a solution. This is a popular idea. Panelists on the BBC radio show “The Infinite Monkey Cage” gave much the same verdict (discussion starts at about 30 minutes). Yet this has been the solution of choice for quite some time now and it doesn’t seem to have fixed anything.

False prospectus

The logic of the argument appears sound: Professional scientists run experiments and stuff like that and so we should give students this authentic experience. We should quit with all the fact learning and teacher-talk and set our students free to run their own investigations.

The problem is that this offers something of a false prospectus. Like the folks who decided to limit the number of mathematical questions on the New South Wales physics exam, we are trying to sell science by making it something that it is not. School science is not really about open-ended investigation; it is about coming to terms with the world in a new way and realising that your intuition is often wrong. Students of science need to unlearn many well-known misconceptions and they need a language for talking about science. Inquiry doesn’t deliver this.

I can state this quite confidently due to the research evidence. In this study, students who sat the PISA science test were asked about their science lessons. Those who reported more inquiry-based learning reported above-average levels of interest in science. So this is strong evidence in favour of using inquiry to engage students. However, they also demonstrated below average levels of scientific literacy. And by this, I don’t mean the recall of factual information, something that inquiry learning advocates might be happy to give away. PISA assesses scientific literacy by asking questions like this one. They are exactly the sorts of real-life, contextualised reasoning problems that inquiry learning is supposed to be good for.

A study using the international TIMSS assessment found a remarkably similar result.

It’s not hard to understand. To reason well about science you need to know an awful lot of science and so methods that directly teach this knowledge are going to be superior. Trying to engage students in science by teaching through inquiry is a little like trying to increase students’ interest in swimming by making them climb trees. They may well enjoy climbing the trees but there will come a time when they realise that they cannot actually swim and this is likely to be a bit of a letdown.

Why wouldn’t students designing their own experiments work if that’s what real scientists do? Well, that’s because real scientists are experts with a lot of book learning behind them (even if the ones pontificating on radio shows often forget this). Students are novices who don’t know as much. Paul Kirschner discusses this well here.

So this plan is flawed. Science teachers either stay true to inquiry and ill-equip their students for future science study or they speak with forked tongues, talking-up investigations whilst delivering powerpoints on the anatomy of the flower. Students will see though this.


Interestingly, we haven’t mentioned women yet. There are two linked problems here. The first is a general lack of interest in learning science and the second is a lack of interest specifically amongst women.

I don’t subscribe to a cognitive hypothesis. I am aware of little evidence that men and women are wired differently, resulting in natural sympathies with particular school subjects. It is probably more social. You could try arguing that science is perhaps less creative than, say, English and you might decide that women are more creative or something. But then you are left with the problem of why women study foreign languages in such numbers; a subject that is objective and fact-based, at least in the early stages.

I looked at women’s under-representation in the sciences as part of my teaching qualification. I found a study (the reference long forgotten) that seemed to show that women who did pursue scientific careers tended to be quite strong-willed individuals. This is highly suggestive of the notion that they had a need for this character trait.

Put simply, the reason why we have a lack of women in science is that we have a lack of women in science. Popular stereotypes play to this and so women don’t imagine themselves in such roles. They don’t see a scientific career as congruent with being a woman. The lack of women also means that the ones who do pursue science are often subjected to the kind of overt sexism that has been diminished in more balanced workplaces.

What can we do about social attitudes? I am highly ambivalent about the whole idea of making nerdiness cool; the Big Bang Theory approach. On the one hand, it might make people less worried about appearing nerdy; something that might put students of both genders off science. On the other hand, it perpetuates the stereotype that scientists are nerdy. The majority of scientists and science teachers that I know are just normal people. If there is one trait that they often do share it is a tendency towards frankness.


I think the only viable long-term solution is an outbreak of honesty about science. We need to share what science actually is with students. We need to be clear that it is tough but rewarding work. It is not just about playing around with bunsen burners.

We also need to tell the stories of science. If you have the opportunity then try this little experiment; walk into a class of students in about Year 7 or Year 8 who are studying “science” and ask them what “physics” is. The chances are that they won’t really know. They will have certainly studied some physics but they won’t know it as that. And this is a problem because how can you imagine your future as a scientist when you lack such knowledge?

It is this metaknowledge that we need to teach, especially when competing careers are often portrayed positively in the media whilst science is misconstrued or replaced by science fiction.

I worked in a school once where we increased the numbers of students of both genders studying advanced level physics. We did this by making the GCSE course – studied by 15- and 16-year-olds – more rigorous. Instead of double science, we insisted that the higher ability groups studied triple science. This course was heavier on content and traditional scientific concepts. My view is that students who were potentially wary of science realised that they could succeed at it. It was challenging but they could see themselves meeting that challenge.

That’s the kind of experience that our young men and young women need and its the sort of experience that might convince more of them to give it a go.


6 Comments on “Women and science education”

  1. […] motivation causes achievement. This is often the rationale for inquiry learning initiatives (e.g. here and here). Yet we can’t be sure that it works this way around. It could just as well be true […]

  2. […] I have written before about the problem of engaging more young women in science education. I suggested that the reasons for a lack of interest are complex and relate to views about identity. I argued that common prescriptions for more ‘inquiry learning’, where students practically investigate phenomena for themselves, are flawed. […]

  3. […] often don’t even bother to make the case that it is an effective way to learn, preferring to focus on the motivational value. But, even then, this is hollow. Inquiry might be motivating initially (and it might not be) but if […]

  4. As a recent female Biological Sciences graduate and current post graduate I think this is brilliant with so many great points – couldn’t agree more with this article! I studied triple science rather than double during my GCSEs and it was that in itself that led me to study science at A-Level and University, as it gave me the confidence that I could succeed in science and more of an insight into where it could take me. The triple science qualification is something I mentioned in my latest blog post as it gave me confidence to study science – something else I see as a barrier to young girls taking science! There definitely needs to be more changes made – I feel the best way would be for female scientists to talk to girls at school and prove to them that it can be done, even if they feel it can’t! Great post, thank you!

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