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Mad Scientess Jane Expat

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Second day of Researchers in Residence [20081217|16:14]
Mad Scientess Jane Expat
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[the weather today is |joyful]

After inhaling a bowlful of pasta and drunk an ocean of tea, I finally feel sane enough to write about my experience today.

I spent about six hours yesterday putting together a debating activity to run at Teddington School today. I practiced my introductory lecture exactly once, at 11:30 PM last night. I had no idea whether or not it was going to work.

I opened with a 12-minute talk on the merits and difficulties of unmanned and manned spaceflight. (The UK doesn’t presently have a manned spaceflight programme.) The teacher and I divided the class arbitrarily into two teams, one that would argue in favour of a manned spaceflight programme, and one against. I gave each team some material I’d prepared. Each side got a sheet of potential points they could make to support their argument. The “No” side got a sheet about nanosatellites and how cheaply and quickly they can be built and launched (and also how much science they can do). The “Yes” side got a bit of propaganda from the British Interplanetary Society, which wants the UK to fund manned spaceflight, and a list of NASA’s top 20 spinoff technologies from spaceflight.

We gave the students 15-20 minutes to elect one or two representative(s) and formulate an argument. We went round the groups and made sure everyone was contributing a point that their representative could use in the debate. Each representative had two to three minutes to speak and then we went through a couple cycles of rebuttal before the “independent observer” (the teacher) declared one side the winner.

We ran this activity in three different classes, two of Year 10 students (14 years old) and one of Year 9 students (13 years old).

Some points that impressed me:
  • First of all, I must say the vast difference between age 13 and age 14 was a revelation to me. Both classes of Year 10s followed the rules of debating almost instinctively. They knew how to focus their efforts and work as a team. Although they got pretty excited, they never became disorganized. The Year 9s, on the other hand, were rather more chaotic. We eventually forged something that vaguely resembled a sensible debate, but we had to put up with a lot of shouting and not very much listening for every minute or so of actual communication.

  • Second, nearly all of the Year 10 representatives were self-possessed and articulate to a degree I wasn’t expecting. The second group, the one with the irascible teacher that I wrote about during my last visit, turned out to be phenomenal overall. (Said teacher was also the best assistant amongst the three and gave the students useful feedback at the end.)

  • Third, all except one of the representatives were male, even though the girls contributed actively to the group discussions.

  • Fourth, the second group of Year 10s told me they’d pestered their teacher about whether or not I was really coming back today. ♥

  • Fifth, the first teacher told me she was pleased to have the debating activity demonstrated by me because teachers are being encouraged to do more lessons in that style. However, no one’s bothering to give them any training in it. Then I told her I’d never done it before, and she almost collapsed with laughter.

  • Sixth, I’m so going back to do another activity with those Year 10s for National Science Week in March.

  • Seventh, Year 7s (age 10) are much too young to sit through even a twenty-minute lecture on measuring magnetic fields in space. I don’t think I’ll try doing a lesson for a group of students that young again, unless I meet their teacher in advance and have guarantees that they’re a relatively calm bunch and that the teacher has firm control over the classroom.

  • Eighth, British teenagers are incredibly pragmatic. Although most of them wanted to be astronauts, the “No” side of the debate won two out of the three times. The “Yes” team of Year 9s won, but only because they were marginally better at debating, not because the content of their argument was superior. In the first class, we had a vote on whether anyone had been converted from the “No” side to the “Yes” side. No one had. Then we voted on whether anyone had been converted from the “Yes” side to the “No” side. Four people had, including the boy who’d given the most compelling argument in favour. Much as they’d like to try it, they honestly don’t believe their country has the resources to fund manned spaceflight.

  • Lastly, I adore doing this. I don’t think I want to be a teacher because I couldn’t sustain this level of energy for eight hours a day five days a week. But I do want to visit a school a couple of times each term to run outreach activities.

[User Picture]From: nationofsheep
2008-12-17 17:02 (UTC)
I think it is ridiculously awesome that you are doing this. I am tempted to say that it is so much different from the USA having this sort of outreach. But we have a good friend who lives across the street that has a phd in geology (works for ExxonMobil) and she does a couple of lectures a term. Some of those are for a women in science program that are to rooms of all girls. Of course, being in Houston, there is the science outreach from NASA, biology and oil and gas. My son's public elementary school has its own wetland provided by Shell. I know there is a lot of research cuts here in the last 8 years. I have three friends (one I know in RL and two LJ) that are Physicists of some sort and all of you left the country in the last four years for various reasons, but I can't help but think if there were incredibly attractive opportunities here that a few of you would be here.

Anyway. Good for you. I just find it exciting when people I know can get kids excited about stuff, especially science and art.
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[User Picture]From: nanila
2008-12-19 19:15 (UTC)
You know, this is kind of a random observation but your comment made me think of it. Even though there are a lot of things I like about living in this country, it seems like the British academic science community is still a lot more patriarchal than the American one. Not that the American one is a model of egalitarian spirit or anything, but it does seem like there are more people making an effort there to bring in women and minorities than there are here.
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[User Picture]From: nationofsheep
2008-12-19 22:19 (UTC)
That's funny that you say this. My geologist friend was over last night and we were all talking about the outreach programs. The observation that she made was interesting. About once a quarter at ExxonMobil, the company puts together some one day conference just for the women in research, engineering and executive roles for some subject. The last one was Coping Mechanisms for Daily Stress. We all had observations about that subject. Like no one would think to have a conference like this for men. Maybe a voluntary thing for all employees but never for specifically men. And there's this women in leadership initiative that provides opportunities for all the women in professional roles to have a one on one lunch with each of the VP's in their region. All they have to do is sign up. Men also don't have this opportunity. While on the surface it all might seem unfair in a reverse way, I think voluntary affirmative action programs like these can be very effective at changing attitudes. It's refreshing at least that the second largest company in the world is doing things like this even if the largest company in the world (Wal-mart) is still operating on a 1950's frame of mind.

Also your observation makes me think of the most racist place I have ever lived which is Boston. I think that sometimes because a region has a more progressive reputation (Britain, Europe, the Northeast), there aren't as many people pushing the envelope on changing stereotypes. The oil and gas industry is notorious for being white men only. So the bigger companies go out of their way to battle this image.

I think maybe people just expect that in Britain this problem has been solved, so there isn't as much intentional effort because they are under no pressure to do so.
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[User Picture]From: swerve
2008-12-17 18:51 (UTC)
I love hearing these stories. I was lucky to have several really engaging science teachers over the years and I haven't forgotten any of them. I'd have loved to have an actual working scientist come in for this sort of thing.
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[User Picture]From: nanila
2008-12-19 19:11 (UTC)
The only thing I'm worried about for those lovely Year 10s is that they might end up in the class with the Year 11 teacher who was...less than ideal. I hope their current teachers, and maybe my visits, will help them hang onto their interest.
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