Special report: Time for some 'girl power' in science

In the week of the 50th Young Scientist Exhibition, Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin reflects on the importance of science and reveals how her love of science prompted a curiosity and understanding which has guided her through life.

I REMEMBER wanting to be a witch or a scientist around the age of six. To me they did exactly the same thing — mix potions until something magical happened — but I never thought of myself as someone who was ‘good’ at science or maths.

In fact, right up to my mock Leaving Cert exams I didn’t think I was able for honours mathematics and only stayed due to my horrendously strict (as I thought at the time!) parents who made me stick with it. I am very grateful to them as I went on to study theoretical physics in UCD and thoroughly enjoyed my degree, as one of only three girls on that course.

Nowadays there is a lot of focus on gender imbalance in science and mathematics. In Dec 2013, it was announced that Ireland scored significantly above in the PISA OECD averages in mathematics and science — something we really should be loudly celebrating — but we unfortunately follow the same international trend of boys outperforming girls in science (albeit marginally) and mathematics (quite significantly).

What could this be attributed to? Perhaps the questions are more geared towards boys, perhaps girls were not as engaged with the test, but what strikes me in the results is that girls have more ‘anxiety’ about their knowledge than boys. Girls lack confidence in their own ability in these subjects.

There have been a few initiatives to encourage girls in studying science but some have unfortunately taken a very stereotyped approach. Take for example the ‘Science — it’s a girl thing’ video, depicting girls in high heels engaging in science because it has to do with lipstick and blusher, or the far more positive and colourful clip of three girls creating a domino mechanism in their house, advertising pink inventor toys for girls.

Coming from a house with five boys, I loved playing with my non-gender specific Lego as much as I loved my Barbie dolls, so I don’t think there is any real need for specific ‘girly’ toys to encourage curiosity in young women.

As a recent Institute of Physics report suggests, we may be unwittingly reinforcing gender stereotypes in young people and thus not helping to improve the gender imbalances in undergraduate engineering, maths and physics courses.

We need to let young girls know that they are able for, may very much enjoy and could have successful, satisfying careers in science.

There are a number of women we may shine a spotlight on as positive role-models in science: Natalie Portman (a published research author) is leading a STEM competition with Disney following her role as an astrophysicist in the Thor movies; Amy (Mayim Bialik) is a scientist in The Big Bang Theory on TV but in real life has a PhD in neuroscience; Winnie (Danica McKellar) from The Wonder Years (ask your mum if you’re under 30) is now a maths advocate in the US.

Any science or mathematics degree is a valuable international passport, allowing you to work and travel around the world. Margaret Murnane, an Irishwoman who studied physics in UCC, is now chair of the President’s Committee on the National Medal of Science in the US and Julie McEnery, a UCD graduate, is head of FERMI Spacecraft at Nasa.

In Ireland we have our own research rock stars such as Aoife McLysaght (molecular biologist), Sinead Ryan (mathematics), Annette Byrne (physiology) or Laoise McNamara (tissue engineering). As one trademark suggests — we can be more than princesses.

Even more important than promoting science as an interest to children, we should promote students’ engagement with mathematics. I enjoy maths. I enjoy working out a problem and (eventually) reaching a correct answer. I have enjoyed teaching maths and want more young people to enjoy learning about, having fun with and being confident in mathematics.

Our new Project Maths curriculum aims to engage students more in mathematics but also to give them the skills to problem-solve.

The Project Maths classroom encourages students to work together, to think out loud and outside the box. It would be my hope that girls, who may be more reticent in rhyming- off a learned skill and want to know the ‘why’ before they do something, will gain confidence by working in small groups and talking through a problem.

Maths represents the steel girders in the foundations of the ever-expanding house of scientific research. Science is about wonder, curiosity and the thrill of figuring something out. It’s about asking questions and standing on the shoulders of those who have asked the questions that came before.

Whether you do it in high heels or not is up to you.

Read our special report celebrating the 50th anniversary of the BT Young Scientist & Technology Exhibition

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