Engaging young women in science education

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.

Since then, a couple of articles have been published that add something more to the discussion. The first piece is a quite brilliant essay by Emma C Williams. Williams is a teacher and author of young adult fiction who writes articles on humanism. Prior to that, she worked as an academic philosopher. I stress these elements of her biography because they demonstrate that Williams is a deep thinker, interested in the larger questions about human existence. As a science teacher, I sense a kindred spirit. And yet Williams’s experience of science convinced her that it was all a bit prosaic.

“Back in the 1980s I did many practicals, and I suppose that my teachers tried their best to pique my scientific interest. There were ping-pong balls and life-sized models; there were even bottles of acid kicking around on the laboratory bench right next to the gas taps, which some students never tired of lighting behind the teacher’s back. But I’m afraid I simply wasn’t thrilled when a powder changed colour at the bottom of a test tube, or when my lit splint made a squeaky pop, indicating the presence of hydrogen…

none of those practical lessons had convinced me that science was anything other than the pursuit of the mundane.

Most children are natural philosophers. In addition, and contrary to popular belief, not all of them are better engaged by hands-on activities over abstract ideas. In my case, somewhat romantic and thrilled by artistic ideals as I was, the seemingly humdrum realities of the science lab were a positive turn off. My head was bursting with the biggest questions imaginable… 

As my interest in philosophy grew, it was nurtured and guided exclusively by teachers of the arts: numerous English teachers, a couple of historians and most of all my Classics teacher, who would eventually inspire my subject of choice at university. It’s ironic that the closest I came to doubting my convictions as to the unworthiness of science came to me through literature; in being exposed to the metaphysical poets, I couldn’t escape the fact that these exciting, romantic and raunchy philosophers were fascinated by science. But the “real” scientists had long since abandoned me as a dreamer and left me to discover — too late, as it happens — that my disregard for mathematics and the sciences would eventually limit my academic career; suffice to say, my first postgraduate seminar in the philosophy of logic was one hell of a shock.”

Science is full of life’s big questions: Where did we come from? What is our fate? Are there others out there who are like us? How do we know what is true? Even the smaller ideas can provoke wonder.

I have taught children from Grade 6 upwards about Newton’s cannon – the explanation for how the Moon orbits the Earth and why this happens for exactly the same reason that objects on the surface of the Earth – such as apples – fall. Each time, as this sinks in, I explain to my students that they can now comprehend something fundamental about the universe that most people who have ever lived have never understood and that most people alive today do not understand.

Newton's Cannon (from Principia - Public Domain)

Newton’s Cannon (from Principia – Public Domain)

Is this less engaging than completing an experiment involving trolleys? Emma C. Williams is not perhaps representative of every student but her comments should at least give us reason to pause before we prescribe more hands-on inquiry learning as the solution to the engagement problem.

And yet a pause is not on anyone’s agenda. I am sure that the science teacher in this video put out by the ACER is inspirational and, no doubt, he has encouraged a number of young women to engage in science. He seems to have an interesting angle about astronomy that neatly bridges both the practical and the ‘biggest questions’ referred to by Williams. However, the message for anyone who wants to replicate what he is doing is to prioritise hands-on, practical activities.

Where does this prescription come from? I am sure that many hands-on interventions will result in students stating that they feel more positive towards science. This is probably true for any intervention that is a break from the norm. Yet if students are ultimately motivated by mastery then we need to use pedagogies that best equip students with knowledge and understanding. Inquiry learning does not have a good track record of this.

Instead, we can trace this idea at least as far back as John Dewey and the origins of progressive education, where the notion of experiential learning was elevated over explicit instruction. In this sense, we can see the whole question of engaging young women in science as not a genuine subject of open inquiry but as a fig leaf for returning to the well-worn rhetoric of a failed past.

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12 Comments on “Engaging young women in science education”

  1. Liz says:

    As a female engineer I read this with interest. Just the term “trolley” had me groaning inside – I had forgotten all those awful school practicals. It wasnt that hands-on time that inspired me to study engineering but instead finding a fascinating theoretical (undergrad level) book on the principals of flight.

  2. Felicity says:

    I’d never even heard of Newton’s cannon before I read this. I think we underestimate how hungry our students – and people in general – are for big ideas and deep understanding .

    • Felicity says:

      In fact, that chimes with some of my recent experience.

      A few weeks ago, preparing a class to read Romeo and Juliet (and influenced by the ideas I’d started reading here and elsewhere), I decided to teach my bottom set class about fatalism and humanism. On the way out of the door, one of my usually more distracted students said it was really interesting and the best lesson I’d taught for ages (er… thanks).

      It was a lesson to me: just because they’re young or not a top set, doesn’t mean they’re not interested in big ideas, and we do them no favours by not giving them the opportunity to engage with them.

  3. Chester Draws says:

    My daughter, now doing a Statistics degree, was heartily sick of all the excessive encouragement she got to do STEM, even though that was where her interests lay.

    We risk over-doing the whole “push girls into science” thing so much that it is actually counter-productive.

    It’s not like our other attempts to alter kids social behaviour by teaching them directly or indirectly at school has worked, but hey — this time it’s different!

  4. Greg Foley says:

    It always seems to me that those who try to ‘market’ science and maths as ‘fun’ or ‘relevant’, or even those who design curricula, actually do not seem to like the very subject they are trying to promote – they try to turn it into something that it isn’t. In Ireland, for example, our senior secondary school maths course has been turned into a grotesque thing called ‘Project Maths’ which is a bizarre mix of data analysis, statistics, huge amounts of Euclidean geometry and a smidgen of calculus. And it’s all designed to make ‘mathematics’ more relevant, the presumption being that students will be more inclined to study maths if they see the connection to real life (The term ‘problem solving’ is used a lot). The Project Maths designers seem to find it inconceivable that youngsters might actually like maths for its own sake, that they might find it interesting and challenging and engaging (sorry for using that word!) to solve a problem that is purely mathematical. There is a kind of anti-intellectual streak running through all of this and it has spread right though the education system in Ireland and elsewhere I suspect.

  5. Gary says:

    We don’t have a “girls in science” problem; we have a girls in physics/maths problem: large numbers of girls go on to study biology and chemistry.

    It seems the kind of school plays a large role in physics A-level uptake by young women (https://www.iop.org/education/teacher/support/girls_physics/different/page_61620.html)

    As always, it’s the ideas in a subject that are the interesting things. Whether you demonstrate them using experiments or a youtube video or a good explanation seems largely irrelevant to me.

    But if you shoehorn a physics practical into a lesson when an explanation on the whiteboard would work better, that is clearly not a good thing. I used to hate physics practicals at school because you spent more time faffing around with bits of kit rather than actually learning or thinking about how the universe worked.

    However, to me, there is something profoundly beautiful about being able to find the force of gravity by simply swinging a pendulum, for example. In the words of Brian Cox: that’s why I love physics (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QQZm8_rwF3A).

    But there are lots of experiments that are not particularly enlightening, and we certainly shouldn’t be doing experiments for experiments’ sake. Let’s not forget there are two huge areas of physics (theoretical and computational, my field) that require no knowledge or use of practical physics at all.

  6. dodiscimus says:

    Emma Williams’ essay is interesting but, although I can see that it has resonated with your own experience, that’s not a very strong basis for generalising. However there has been a lot of work done in the UK on the issue of STEM participation, particularly the ASPIRES and UPMAP projects as part of the TISME initiative, and IoP work specifically on the gender issues in physics.
    http://www.kcl.ac.uk/sspp/departments/education/research/cppr/Research/pastproj/TISME/Publications/index.aspx
    http://www.kcl.ac.uk/sspp/departments/education/research/aspires/index.aspx
    http://www.kcl.ac.uk/sspp/departments/education/research/cppr/Research/pastproj/TISME/Publications/UPMaP.aspx
    http://www.iop.org/education/teacher/support/girls_physics/reports-and-research/page_63816.html )
    I completely agree with you that the issues are complex and relate to views around identity. There is no evidence that making science either ‘more fun’ or ‘more hands-on practical’ will help and, as a science teacher, I am completely with you on trying to show that science is about addressing the big questions posed by the universe rather than rolling trolleys down ramps. However, if you look at the evidence from the research I’ve linked to above, you’ll see that debating the most effective way to engage children misses the point – most children already enjoy science, and think it is important.
    What they lack is “science capital” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A0t70bwPD6Y and a sense that science is something for them. We can obviously make use of outreach opportunities and the abundance of varied images from STEM careers sources in our teaching but the more fundamental issue for us as teachers is trying to break the sense that, even for high-achieving children, science is some massively difficult and abstract body of fixed knowledge that is suitable only for people even cleverer than them (and probably male, middle-class, and white or SE Asian).
    There is a good argument to be made that very traditional teaching through direct instruction leads to the best understanding and this makes science seem more accessible.
    There is another argument that collaborative learning is particularly effective in building deeper understanding; this makes science seem more accessible.
    There is yet another argument that the curriculum needs to contain more socio-scientific issues because this helps children to see that science careers might provide the kind of daily rewards of contributing to society and working with all sorts of people that girls, in particular, often cannot see in ‘pure’ science research.
    Perhaps inquiry-based elements might be an important part of the curriculum because they counter the image of science as an abstract body of fixed knowledge and show children that science can be about problem-solving as well as knowledge acquisition.
    Finally, there is an argument that too much practical work is about ‘getting the right results’ rather than deepening conceptual understanding, or developing practical skills, and this is why children appreciate it more as a diversion than as an important way of supporting theoretical work.
    There is evidence to support all of these arguments – some of it in the work linked to above and some elsewhere. I think the only point I’m making is that STEM participation isn’t an ‘engagement’ problem; it’s an ‘image of science and self’ problem. Even though mastery may be motivating, it isn’t enough to persuade children to choose STEM subjects post-16, and that is particularly true of girls and other under-represented groups. Whether any of the other teaching approaches are really more effective in changing perceptions, and whether that is worth any possible trade-off against knowledge and understanding, is fair game, but I don’t think you can use Emma Williams’ essay to lend much weight to the case for a traditional approach to science teaching.
    Best wishes.

    • gregashman says:

      Thanks for this response and for the links. Let me make it clear – I am not making a positive argument that traditional , explicit approaches to science education will increase the number of women going on to careers in the physical sciences. My argument is a negative one. I am trying to cast doubt on the very commonly proposed solution of pursuing more inquiry learning as a means to achieve this. I believe that Emma C Williams’s piece is good for raising doubt amongst those who might hold this view. When I see such prescriptions, I don’t see a conspiracy but I do notice the DNA of John Dewey and I wonder whether the issue of women’s engagement (I accept that you don’t like this word) is being mobilised to serve a different agenda.

      As Keynes says, “Practical men who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.”

  7. wiltwhatman says:

    Inquiry based learning advocates would probably argue that the example you are using is not, actually, genuinely inquiry based.

    They’d have a point about that too, if they are from the Piaget/Papert and Bruner schools of minimal or limited scaffolding. The example you use is probably not really inquiry based learning.

    In schools, experiments in chemistry are often prescribed. Inquiry and pbl advocates would argue the prescription is the problem. It’s not discovery based learning, or genuinely constructivist if the learner is not largely free to discover based on their interests, passions and whimsy.

    Papert and Piaget fans would argue the problem wasn’t that she had experiments to do, but that she was told which experiments to do and how. Had she been free to discover and construct her knowledge herself through non prescriptive experimentation, then the curiosity she lacked would have been inspired, nurtured, and allowed to blossom. To paraphrase Papert, if it’s on a curriculum, it’s not constructionist. To paraphrase Piaget, if it’s being taught it’s not constructivist.

    I’m also uncertain about how the post engages with it’s title. I don’t really get how it’s about engaging women in science education. Or not. Emma Williams issue with her science education didn’t seem to be about gender. Inquiry based learning and direct instruction are not about gender. And the points you make about the weaknesses and strengths of bothe methods also don;t seem to be about gender.

    Heck. It’s late at night here. And everything hurts from swinging an axe all day. Apologies if I;m being over blunt.

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