View From Here: Girls! Science is for all of you, too

Science is creative, driven by people and passion as much as by logical thought, so why can't girls see it?
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The Independent Online
IF SCIENTISTS are going to solve the big problems of science, they need to work together in large numbers - across disciplines and across the globe. Collaborating, putting minds together, is part of the power of science.

Scientists, on the whole, are men. Men, so the argument goes, are poorer at the skills involved in collaboration than women: they are not so good at communicating and listening. The competitive male ego and greater need for status also makes it more difficult for them to share knowledge.

So, a collaborative enterprise like science might seem ideal for women - yet the number of girls taking up careers in research is disproportionately low. Why don't girls realise at school how well science suits their natural collaborative instincts, excel at it, and get hooked for life?

There are two possible reasons why this might be so. First, boys tend to dominate in experimental work and group interactions. Girls, in the face of such aggressive male behaviour, can become passive and stop making contributions. Their confidence in their ability at science is often low: hence the often quoted idea that all-girls' schools have most success at getting more girls to continue with science - since girls are in a non-threatening and non-stereotyped environment.

Second, many girls seem to find school science impersonal, lacking emotion - just a set of facts, nothing to do with real people. Of course, that isn't what science is like at all. Research is a creative enterprise, driven by people and passion as much as logical thought. What can be done to make more girls realise that science is for them?

Last week, I met 40 scientists at the Royal Institution. They were getting together to decide their research for the year and to team up with researchers from around the country. Nothing unusual about that, you might think, except that these scientists were 15 years old.

They're the first members of what's being called the "Pupil Research Community". It's a bold, new initiative from the Centre for Science Education, at Sheffield Hallam University. At the moment it is running as a pilot scheme managed by a team. However, I am delighted that we will be officially launching the Pupil Research Community at the Royal Institution on 7 July.

The requirement for schools taking part was simply that teachers agreed to let their pupils research whatever topic it was that really mattered to them. Pupils settled on areas like predicting earthquakes, such as the one which has just devastated Colombia, and living in space.

Pupils had been communicating by e-mail for weeks with their new-found colleagues in other schools, suggesting and developing ideas. On the day, the buzz of talk, when they met face to face, was palpable. Now, they're beginning their research, apart again, in their own schools. But they'll be sharing ideas and helping each other, just as if they were in the same classroom, by using the Internet. And in 6 months, they'll meet again at the Royal Institution, to present their findings at a science conference.

I hope that by giving the girls, who actually outnumber the boys, an experience that parallels the way scientists work, we can make a difference to their attitude to science. They will spend a lot of time collaborating and communicating, and they ought soon to realise that they possess the skills they need in greater quantities than the boys they're working with.

Because they're working at a distance, the problems of boys dominating disappear. The girls have time to think through their arguments, and should feel more comfortable about expressing their points of view online, which in turn should build their confidence, and inevitably they'll see how important the human side is in the process we call science. Who knows? They might even come to realise that scientists are as driven by emotion and passion as the rest of us.

There are just a handful of schools taking part, trying to define a new way of doing science in school. But we could be seeing hundreds of schools entering this new scientific community, where pupils are the driving force.

This community doesn't have to be sidelined as an extra-curricular activity, either. There are already signs that a project component will be introduced into the national curriculum for science. Then perhaps we can look forward to a day when science in school won't revolve around teaching the ideas of a lot of long-dead men. Instead it could give free rein to the ideas of tomorrow's scientists.

Maybe experiments won't be isolated things pupils do in classrooms, but collaborative activities they can carry out with colleagues, wherever they happen to be.

The writer is a director of the Royal Institution, and Professor of Pharmacology at the University of Oxford