What scientists really need to know on their mission of ‘outreach’

by Seirian Sumner (@Waspwoman), Soapbox Science co-founder


I’ve never really got the hype about Brian Cox…and after a trip to the National Assembly of Wales I now know why: I’m Welsh and I’m a woman! It turns out if you want to engage and inspire the next generation of scientists, you need role models they can identify with, role models like them.

Soapbox Science (@Soapboxscience) went to the National Assembly of Wales cross-party group in science and technology AGM in Cardiff on 4th March. Wendy Sadler (@wendyjsadler) presented a compelling summary of the trends and statistics on what influences a young person’s decision in becoming a scientist (or not).  Wendy is a truly inspirational person. She’s a much sought after science communicator, physics graduate and director of the awesome enterprise ‘Science made Simple’ which brings science to schools in a cutting edge “lets make a REAL difference” manner  http://www.sciencemadesimple.co.uk/

Of Wendy’s eye opening presentation, my favourite fun statistic was what she referred to as “The Cox Effect”: Has Brian Cox’s popularisation of science made a difference by encouraging more children into science? The data suggest this has worked for boys, but not girls. And moreover, he’s had little effect on the uptake of science by either gender in Wales!

Sub-text: we need a WELSH FEMALE equivalent to Brian Cox! So, how can we, the scientists, help achieve this?

A workforce of highly trained scientists is essential for securing the future of the UK economy. The government has invested in trying to work out what it is that makes or breaks a child’s decision to follow a science career. Wendy Sadler reviewed the latest data and draws some insightful conclusions, which are relevant to policy makers and MPs who decide what our kids are taught.

How can we, as scientists engaging with the public, maximise our bang to buck ratio when it comes to shaping the demographic of the next generation of researchers?

Over 70% of children ages 10-14 tell us that they LOVE science. They tell us that they learn interesting things in science, and that scientists make a difference in the world. Their parents agree. But, you ask those same kids if they aspire to BEING a scientist, only 15% will agree (ASPIRE).

So, what’s going wrong here? Wendy highlighted a few really enlightening statistics, which have some serious messages for the good-willed scientist on their mission to ‘do some outreach’. I appeal here to the audience of scientists, not the educators (for whom this will be common sense!). Scientists – if you REALLY want to make a difference in shaping the workforce demographic of future scientists, here’s what you need to know:

1) Get them young! There are two big challenges: firstly, children need to understand the link between “science” and the careers that scientific learning can lead to. It’s difficult to persuade any child, boy or girl, that science is a worthwhile career in secondary school, if the seed was not planted sufficiently deeply in the primary years. Secondly, help teachers dispel the age-old male scientist stereotype. If a girl leaves primary school thinking a scientist as a man, then you’ve almost lost the game. So, women in science – if you want to inspire the next generation of “mini-me’s”, focus on the little ones – go into your local primary (not secondary) school and tell them all the cool things you can do if you train as a mathematician, engineer or plant ecologist. Only by getting more female scientists into schools will we dispel the idea that scientists are always men.

2) Teaching kids science badly has almost as big an impact as teaching it well. 43% of young people said that having a bad science teacher discouraged them from learning science; 58% said that having a good science teacher had encouraged them (Wellcome Trust Monitor). This will be no news to school teachers. But, the scientist on a mission of ‘outreach’ should also take note: perhaps doing a bad job of ‘outreach’ is worse than not doing it at all. The pressure put on all UK scientists to ‘achieve societal impact’ and ‘do some outreach’ may in fact be counter productive to the ultimate goal of giving back to society what government funded science uses, and encouraging a healthy stock of UK scientists for the future. To be blunt – if outreach is not your forte, then get some training, and then if it still doesn’t click, then admit defeat, stick to the lab and send out your ‘down with the kids’ PhD student or postdoc.

3) Families and teachers have the biggest influence on a child’s ultimate decision to be a scientist or not. So, cut the dreamy-eyed view that an annual visit to your local school is going to be responsible for a local epidemic of scientists in 10 years time. But, more serious is the gender stereotyping among parents, who admit higher aspirations for their sons (10-12% of respondents) in a career in science or engineering than their daughters (2-7%) (CaSE). Gulp – ok, so perhaps we should forget the schools, and target the parents…. Not quite such a captive audience, but worth some serious thought. (I don’t need to say that this is exactly what Soapbox Science attempts to do….)

4) Target the co-ed schools. Everyone knows that girls perform better in single sex schools than co-ed schools. But burrow deeper into those data and you’ll find that nearly half of the UK’s co-ed secondary schools fail to take girls on to Physics A level. So if you’re physics researcher looking for impact on society, target the mix-sex schools and inspire the girls!

Welsh schools in particular face even greater challenges. Despite over 728 science engagement activities on offer, Wales is experiencing lower output of girls taking science at A level than the rest of the UK. The Welsh Government has ploughed over £2.2m since 2012 to help address this problem, with an emphasis on the early years, the parents and girls. Let’s hope this is enough to overcome the Cox effect!

Meanwhile, Soapbox Science is doing its bit to help promote science and women in science in Wales. Could it be that Wales’ own female Brian Cox will be lurking in the wings at Swansea’s Soapbox Science event on 6th June? Stay tuned and find out the answer in the post by Geertje Van Keulen, coming out soon!



Resources used by Wendy and cited in this blog

Wellcome Trust Monitor www.wellcome.ac.uk/monitor – Longitudinal tracking survey that has been running since 2009 for adults and young people (ages 14-18). Aim is to explore trends and variation across time on general scientific themes and societal issues.

ASIRES (Science aspirations and career choices 10-14) http://www.kcl.ac.uk/sspp/departments/education/research/aspires/aims.aspx – Longitudinal tracking survey of students over 5 years to understand how family, school and social identity influences young people’s science and career aspirations.

CaSE Improving Diversity in STEM http://sciencecampaign.org.uk/CaSEDiversityinSTEMreport2014.pdf

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