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MumsnetGuestPosts (MNHQ) Fri 19-Jun-15 15:46:37

Guest post: 10 ways to keep your daughter engaged in science

Jenny Inglis says it's up to us as parents to ensure the next generation of women have the confidence they need to pursue a career in science

Jenny Inglis

Whizz Pop Bang

Posted on: Fri 19-Jun-15 15:46:37

(123 comments )

Lead photo

"By the age of 10 or 11 girls have already formed opinions of what subjects are appropriate for them."

In the wake of Tim Hunt's recent explosive comments on 'girls' in laboratories, a welcome debate about women in science has been stirred up. Currently only 7% of British engineers are female, which puts the UK at the bottom of the European gender equality tables. Britain suffers from a large shortage of engineers and scientists each year, so plugging the gap by inspiring more girls into science would seem to be the obvious solution. Unfortunately here in the UK, try as we might, we just can't seem to entice enough schoolgirls into STEM (science, technology, engineering & mathematics) subjects; something needs to change.

But the key to change can't be found with the professors and university lecturers; it can't even be found in the careers advice offices of secondary schools. It lies instead with us – the parents, caregivers and teachers of primary school age children - the people who have the most influence over the next generation.

The fact is that by the age of 10 or 11 children have already formed opinions of what they can and can't do and what subjects are or aren't appropriate for them as a girl or boy. This means that all too often girls opt to drop scientific subjects after their GCSEs, and thereby forego successful and lucrative careers in science and engineering.

It's up to us as parents to ring the changes in girls' early, formative years to help ensure that the next generation of young women grow up with the confidence they need to pursue a career in science. Here are some suggestions on how you can help your girls to flourish as scientists…

1. Start early
From the first day that they are born, girls are subjected to gender stereotyping – pink princesses, cupcakes and dolls adorn their babygrows and nursery walls. As they begin to become aware of their environment, some of the very first messages they're receiving are that girls should be interested in frilly things, domestic baking and childcare, whereas boys should be interested in machines and construction. Let's forget this crazy gender segregation of babies and instead allow children to be free to develop their own interests by exposing them to a balanced mix of images from day one.

Listen to your daughter's ideas and explanations. Respond with sincerity to her first barrage of toddler "Why?" questions and try to take every opportunity to talk to her about how things work.


2. Buy gender-neutral toys
Next time you buy a gift for a girl, try to think objectively about the toy that you choose. Will it be reinforcing gender stereotypes or breaking them? Here are some ideas for toys that will help encourage an interest in science and engineering from an early age:
Age 0-2: Toys that help promote co-ordination and construction are ideal at this age – for example shape sorters, Mega Bloks and even toy tools.
Age 3-5: Train sets, toy vehicles, plastic magnifying glasses and construction toys all make excellent gifts for pre-school girls.
Age 6-11: Lego, a children's microscope, a science set or a subscription to a science magazine are ideal for helping to inspire young girls.
Age 11+: Microscopes or even electrical engineering sets are excellent for budding young scientists, as well as logic puzzles like Rubik's cubes.

3. Lead by example
Try to be a visible role model by taking an interest in science in the news or in the nature you find on the walk to school. Have a go at mending the washing machine – you might surprise yourself!

4. Take things apart
When a clock, a wind-up toy or even just a retractable pen stops working, instead of throwing it away, encourage your daughter to take it to pieces. Give her a screwdriver, some pliers, whatever tools she needs to get in there. It doesn't matter if she can't mend whatever was broken or even put it back together again; she'll have learnt something about the inner workings of machines and more importantly she'll have learnt that it's fine for girls to wield tools.

5. Explore together
Listen to your daughter's ideas and explanations. Respond with sincerity to her first barrage of toddler "Why?" questions and try to take every opportunity to talk to her about how things work. Encourage her to ask questions and if you don't know the answer, don't panic! Look up the answer or encourage her to experiment to discover it for herself.

6. Let her get on with it
You probably already know that when she mixes vinegar with bicarbonate of soda she's going to create a ton of bubbles, that will likely spill out of the container, but it will be so much more exciting and memorable if she discovers it for herself. Share the message that the universe is full of undiscovered things and things that scientists don't have answers for and that's what makes science so exciting!

7. Stimulate her interest with science magazines and books
It can be tricky to find science resources and ideas for fun experiments to try at home, so make sure you have a supply of child-friendly science magazines and books to turn to. Whizz Pop Bang is a monthly magazine full of interesting articles and exciting experiments for 6-11 year olds that you can sign up for here.

8. Take trips to science museums and festivals
As well as the more obvious science museums, there are also lots of other fantastic venues for discovering science - from transport museums to zoos. Family festivals are worth investigating too, as they often have science tents full of hands-on science.

9. Get out and about
Nothing beats a real science field trip. Take a magnifying glass and a notebook to draw or write about what you find. Encourage your child to look under rocks and in crevices to find tiny bugs or fungi. Look at rock formations, search for fossils or investigate seeds and flowers.

10. Discover the universe
You can find out when the International Space station will be passing over your house here. Put out a blanket in the garden on a clear evening and lie looking up at the stars and the awe-inspiringly huge universe. When you see the space station, it will be travelling at the speed of five miles every second, orbiting the earth every 90 minutes and transporting a crew of six international astronauts, busily carrying out ground-breaking experiments in space – that should inspire even the most sceptical of girls to take an interest in science!

By Jenny Inglis

Twitter: @whizzpopbangmag

Chrysanthemum5 Fri 19-Jun-15 17:18:48

I agree we need to encourage all children to be open about subject choices. However I disagree that the universities are not part of the problem / solution. I Was a scientist and I've worked for a long time in universities- sexism is absolutely endemic in this environment and there is no point encouraging girls to take science subjects if they have fewer opportunities than the boys will have.

So, yes encourage your children to explore (and I like your suggestions) but we must also expect academia to change to suit all of our children.

BethandPollysMum Fri 19-Jun-15 17:26:17

So chuffed to hear there's finally a decent science magazine for kids! What a refreshing change from all the princesses and pink plastic!

Bonsoir Fri 19-Jun-15 17:47:32

I disagree that there is some sort of dichotomy between "pink/princess" and "science". Girls can have and do both.

Whizzpopbangmag Fri 19-Jun-15 18:13:46

Thanks for your comments. I completely agree that girls should be free to like pink princesses as well as science - I just think that it would be nice if all children could be exposed to a healthy mix of influences and be given the opportunities to develop their own individual interests. My new Whizz Pop Bang magazine aims to give parents and children ideas for easily bringing science into homes. I'm launching on Kickstarter at the moment - kck.st/1G5YTnc -Any support very gratefully received in order to get the magazine up and running. grin

ErrolTheDragon Fri 19-Jun-15 18:24:48

My DD has just finished GCSEs, planning on double maths, physics and probably comp sci for a levels and is going to a couple of uni open days to look at their engineering departments soon.

Yes, we did most of those things - not because we wanted to create a scientist or engineer but because it's all so interesting and we wanted her to be whoever she wanted to be. And both being scientists ourselves probably helped it to be what we naturally did.
Do those things but also music, art etc - girls and boys both. Buy them all a range of toys - the clearly gender neutral (even though they're still sometimes mislabelled as 'boys') but also the dolls,soft toys and toy kitchens.

Athenaviolet Fri 19-Jun-15 19:16:51

My DD says she wants to be a scientist and have a lab when she grows up.

I did science at school and was good at it but wasn't encouraged to study it at uni.

I now realise it would have suited me very well.

What can I say to her primary school teacher to encourage her interest?

DirtyBlonde Fri 19-Jun-15 19:25:06

Does the new science magazine have a website?

(tried google, nothing jumped out)

Bolshybookworm Fri 19-Jun-15 19:42:18

Your daughters in primary, so there's still plenty of time to steer her towards a better career Athenaviolet wink

Seriously though, academic lab research is a terrible career for both sexes but particularly bad for women. Rubbish pay (for the hours and qualifications needed), zero career stability, constant short term contracts, the need to move every 3 years, shortened maternity leave ("your taking 6 months?!"), very little option for part time work. All the women vanish at senior levels- there's a massive retainment problem in my field.

Lots of other, more fulfilling things you can do with a science degree though, so definitely encourage her love of science. She'll learn a lot more science at secondary school so until then id put lots of effort into fuelling her interests outside of school. There's lots of science festivals around the country- can you take her to one? They often have lots of hands on stuff for kids. Most unis have outreach programmes for kids as well- have a look at your local unis website.

Springtimemama Fri 19-Jun-15 19:51:39

Message withdrawn at poster's request.

Micah Fri 19-Jun-15 20:44:19

thereby forego successful and lucrative careers in science and engineering

hahahahahaha

Point me in the direction of these lucrative careers please, and I'll dust off my PhD. IME the pay is terrible, and there's no job security. Most scientists in academia live from one year contract to the next, three years if they're lucky. With the constant threat of research grants being removed or reduced. All the people I did my PhD and Postdoc with have now left science altogether.

I will encourage my children's interest in science. But if they want a "successful and lucrative career", I shall be pointing them in other directions.

ErrolTheDragon Fri 19-Jun-15 20:59:13

The shortage of scientists and engineers (esp the latter) are in the 'real world' not academia. We need good people in these areas if we're going to have strong industries. People who haven't worked in industry seem to have a curiously blinkered view of what 'scientist' can mean.

I've had a science-based job with the same company for nearly 30 years - decent pay and they were great when I had my DD - I've worked part time from home since she started school. Please don't assume that all science and technical jobs are sexist.

Bolshybookworm Fri 19-Jun-15 21:00:39

That's how I feel micah. I get a wave of panic whenever my daughter tells me she wants to be a scientist (she's into volcanos). She's only 3 though, so plenty of time to steer her towards something better grin

Bolshybookworm Fri 19-Jun-15 21:11:49

We're definitely talking about academia errol - I hear much, much better things from my friends in industry (which can be unstable but is generally more supportive of it's staff). I've recently moved out of academia and into clinical trials and it's a shock (a pleasant one!) to see so many female bosses. And an actual career structure!

I think the general public think of "scientist" as meaning lab scientist in a university, which is a crap job. I worry that a lot of popular science stuff for kids focuses on this view of scientists when we should be funnelling them into all the better and just as exiting careers you can do with a science degree. How many kids know what a medical physicist does? Or an environmental engineer? Or a clinical trials associate?

Micah Fri 19-Jun-15 21:23:00

I'm stuck though now. Degree, PhD, post doc, 10 years in a nice job in the nhs (pay was better than academia!). Interesting, good hours round dc, negotiated part time, but again limited career structure and I had maxed out my pay scale.

Nhs shut my department, so here I am. I'm pretty much looking at going back in at the bottom, I have no way of negotiating part time in a new job, and I need to work round school hours. Industry generally want full time, 8-6.

AnathemaPratchett Fri 19-Jun-15 21:26:53

I'm a secondary science teacher.

I battle really really hard to keep the girls interested in science. What tends to happen in the vast majority is we get them all excited about science from junior school. We keep them interested through years 7 and 8 - and science club tends to be 50/50 girls/ boys.
Then something happens. I'm still not quite sure what. Peer pressure. Lack of resilience. Finding science interesting is nerdy. Whatever. They start finding science (especially chemistry and physics) hard conceptually. And then by the end of year 9 the girls are sitting with their parents at parents evening, and the mum is saying how they always found science hard (or maybe they just liked biology), and how "it's not their child's thing". And how they are much better at other subjects.... And we are talking about pupils with top levels, and predicted A*/A/B s.
And they slowly switch off. While the boys stay motivated better by competing with each other at understanding the science this often doesn't work.
But then in my A level classes the girls we have retained often are more resilient and do better.
And I know this happens in pretty much every school in my area because us science teachers have sat down and chatted about it.

Bolshybookworm Fri 19-Jun-15 21:28:14

I got part time straight off the bat when I moved to clinical trials at a uni. It involved taking a hefty pay cut as I'm retraining but I've been surprised by how family friendly it is. I was a long in the tooth post doc. Lots of trials jobs in the nhs too- might be worth a shot with your background?

AnathemaPratchett Fri 19-Jun-15 21:29:15

Sorry some sentences were garbled - on my phone cuddling a dd to sleep so typing one handed etc!

Lweji Fri 19-Jun-15 21:33:16

It would help to know how to keep my own DS interested in science. He is all about football.
Not my son!

11. Don't allow her teachers to talk about a scientific career as virtually impossible. (if only I could remember who was the very uninteresting teacher, I'd scrub my career on her face)

mamato3luvleys Fri 19-Jun-15 21:36:37

My dd who's 9 also wants to be a scientist when she's older and would love to visit a "real life lab" she's also well into history and thinks that when she goes to university that's what she will do so fingers crossed she keeps this mindset...saying that my good friend who has a PhD in marine biology can't find any work so how can you win?!

Bolshybookworm Fri 19-Jun-15 21:37:07

Interesting Anathema- do you think there is an element of the girls being pragmatic and focusing on the subjects they think they can achieve their highest grades in?

AnathemaPratchett Fri 19-Jun-15 21:40:20

Bolshy - yes I think there's an element of that. I also think there's an element of projection often from mum about how hard and boring science is. I also think that there is a big conceptual leap needed at a certain point in chemistry and physics that boys often just bluff through and ignore isn't there, while girls can angst over it and give up because they "don't get it". Huge generalisation there of course!

Bolshybookworm Fri 19-Jun-15 21:58:04

That was pretty true for me with maths, Anathema! The leap from GCSE to a level was huge and I really struggled. It was only because of a great teacher and a maths bod for a best mate that I made it through to the point where I enjoyed it. I think girls (such as I was) can be more perfectionist and think they're a failure if they aren't immediately great at something.

3579little Fri 19-Jun-15 22:03:37

Another scientist here and I won't actively encourage my children into science with the exception of maths. If they are bright, hardworking and have choices I will encourage them to look at the financial rewards and job security. If they are smart and well qualified that degree in engineering has more value to you as a lawyer or a banker than an engineer and that is the problem.

Whizzpopbangmag Fri 19-Jun-15 22:28:56

Thanks for all your comments - really interesting to read everyone's views.

Chrysanthemum5 I absolutely agree that the establishments should change and we should definitely call out sexist behaviour or derogatory comments whenever they occur. However I believe that real deep down change can only come from a new generation, who have grown up with a much more gender-neutral and inclusive upbringing so that their default position is one of acceptance of everyone within their profession, no matter their gender, race or background.

Athenaviolet That's great that your DD is taking such an interest in science. It can be hard for primary school teachers to push science, as there is such a focus on numeracy and literacy that they struggle to even do the minimum recommended 2 hours of science per week in schools. A recent study - www.ippr.org/publications/women-in-engineering-fixing-the-talent-pipeline - found that teachers and careers advisors can be part of the problem of propagating the notion that science is a subject for brainy boys (even when girls often out-perform boys at STEM subjects), which was possibly something that affected you at school by the sounds of it?? If you're talking to your DD's teacher it's worth pointing out how much she enjoys science and ask how the school can support her to pursue her interests at school.

DirtyBlonde Thanks very much for your interest; the website is www.whizzpopbang.com - the magazine is in its very early days - we're just trying to get it off the ground at the moment. We're raising the funding via Kickstarter, where we're asking for people's support to back the magazine by pre-ordering copies on Kickstarter - kck.st/1G5YTnc. But we need to reach our funding goal within the next two weeks otherwise we won't be able to launch sad - so if you can please share the Kickstarter link as much as possible we'd be really grateful. Hopefully we can get the magazine launched and help inspire a new generation of budding scientists smile

Bolshybookworm & Micah You're right that careers in academia mostly don't pay very well at all, but as ErrolTheDragon points out, there are so many other careers that use science in industry, manufacturing and business that do pay much better - there are loads of options open to science graduates. Also graduate engineers are some of the highest paid graduates around...
www.theguardian.com/careers/career-engineering-salary-graduate

Springtimemama Thank you! Glad the tips are helpful for your DS - they're definitely just as relevant for boys as for girls smile

AnathemaPratchett Really interesting comments. I wonder what it is that kicks in at that age and how best to combat it. I think you do need a lot of self-belief to forge ahead with the sciences, which perhaps teenage girls lack more than others (generalising hmm)??

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