Fraser Baird (second from left) smiling with the committee of CAPS 2016 as he receives his prize - a ScienceGrrl goody bag - from Director Dr Heather Williams (far right)

Fraser Baird (second from left) smiling with the committee of CAPS 2016 as he receives his prize – a ScienceGrrl goody bag – from Director Dr Heather Williams (far right)

ScienceGrrl sponsored a prize at this year’s Conference for Astronomy and Physics Students in Glasgow, for the best presentation about work towards improving inclusion and diversity in physics. The winner was Fraser Baird, who is working towards an MSc in Physics with Astrophysics, and also oversees Project FAB – an STFC-sponsored outreach initiative in primary schools. In this guest blog, he shares his motivation and the outcomes so far:

“Project FAB (Ferociously Awesome Balloons) has a very simple goal: get kids excited about science, and understanding the scientific process. Why? There are a few reasons.

The idea first came to me when I was trying to work out what to do with a group of Explorer Scouts. I suggested a science night and the response was a unanimous groan. This made it obvious that whatever I was going to do had to be exciting.

Another motivator was my personal experience of science in primary school. It wasn’t exactly the best – not awful, but not the best. I distinctly remember a period where year after year the closest I came to science was connecting a bulb and a battery and being distinctly unsurprised by the resultant light.

This poor education in science at the primary school level causes some problems. Kids like myself who were previously engaged become bored and lose their enthusiasm. Kids who never were engaged aren’t excited through school. They grow into adults who don’t appreciate the scientific method and are distrusting of scientists.

At this point I’d like to interject that this poor experience was not the fault of my primary school teachers, who were all fantastic. The issue probably arises due to the difficulty in teaching science if you have no formal education in it beyond high school level and there is a lack of solid national curricula on the topic (at the time anyway).

We have a two sided approach to the problem: education and experimentation. We picked topics that we felt were important for children to understand – either because they play an integral part in further studies or because they were relevant to current global issues and research. We then designed lesson plans to distribute to our partner schools on these topics. In tandem with this, we devised experiments that would serve to demonstrate the ideas within these topics, and how the scientific method works.

We eventually settled on climate change, pressure and temperature, gravitation and cosmic rays as our topics. If you’d like to know more about this side of the project, send us an email via the website! Hopefully our website will be running with more specifics soon – look forward to open source lesson plans and code!

What I really want to talk about today is the efforts we’re making to ensure that no one is actively discouraged from science because of their gender. As the project started to take shape last summer from trying to excite explorers, I was very clear I wanted to have gender balance on the team. This was a surprisingly difficult thing to do, since the vast majority of my friends are highly intelligent and capable women, finding guys I knew would fit the project was a bit of an issue. As a result, we have more women on our team than men.

I’m sure the Science Grrl readership will be far better versed on the matter than myself, but it is fairly obvious that from a very early age children are told, or at least impressed upon, that science is for boys and not girls. This, along with increasing societal pressure, discrimination and cases of blatant misogyny girls experience as they grow up in science, we arrive at the great shame of science (especially physics): the gender gap.

So how does our gender split come in to play? A big part of the project is the team introducing the project to primary school children. If a boy sees only guys up in front of them talking about science, this doesn’t register with him at all. From a girl’s point of view she sees more evidence for the internalised belief that science isn’t for girls. If we put a girl – a sciencegrrl, even – in front of her then we can bypass that response. Perhaps she’ll begin to challenge the belief that science isn’t for girls. The provision of female scientific role models isn’t a be all and end all solution to the problem, though – see Heather’s post in which she reveals her own sons still think of a physicist as an old white man with messy hair.

What we do hope to achieve is engage children regardless of their gender. Any progress we can make towards eroding the view that science is only for boys is a success in that regard”.

Catch up with more FAB developments by following Project FAB on facebook, Twitter or instagram.

 

Dr Heather Williams
Heather helped establish ScienceGrrl in June 2012 and is ScienceGrrl's Director. Heather is a Senior Medical Physicist for Nuclear Medicine at Central Manchester University Hospitals and honorary Lecturer in the Centre for Imaging Sciences at Manchester University. She makes sure pictures of patients are top quality so the doctors can trust what they see, and tries out new and better ways of imaging the body’s functions. When she’s not working, Heather enjoys running, cycling and spending time with her sons.
Dr Heather Williams
Dr Heather Williams