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Mad Scientess Jane Expat

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"Girls Into Physics" event at Wellington College [20090623|15:25]
Mad Scientess Jane Expat
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I cut short a weekend getaway to Hereford with the bloke to speak at the first "Girls Into Physics" event at Wellington College on Monday. It was part of an initiative to get independent and state schools to share resources. The organizer was kind enough to pick me up at Wokingham rail station at 8:42 AM. (If you know anything about British Rail services, you can guess what time I had to catch the train from Hereford.) As we entered the magnificent wrought-iron gates of the college and glided up the driveway, bordered by smooth green expanses of lawn punctuated by elegant trees, I definitely got the impression that the independent schools had rather an advantage in terms of resources. It was an impression that did not lessen throughout the day. Particularly after the very nice chicken, roast vegetables, couscous, pudding, cheese board and coffee lunch, for which the chairperson apologized because it "wasn't as good as usual".

There were about 80 girls present, which meant they were the largest outreach audience I'd ever spoken to. Half of them were from the host institution and the other half were from four different local schools. There was a marked internal division between the host institution pupils. Half of them sat quietly in the front two rows, paying attention and even daring to answer some of the questions that the speakers asked. The other half sat in the back, whispering and eating sweets. (I was later informed by one of the teachers from a state school that they were dropping the wrappers on the floor, "probably because they'd never picked up after themselves in their lives," she added, with disgust.)

I spoke about my journey into space physics first, using this previous entry with additions from the comments as my outline. I was the only one who used no PowerPoint, because I'd been asked not to do so, but everyone else apparently asked if they could and were permitted. I found this slightly unfair, but felt vindicated by the positive response I got from the teachers and the students. A couple of girls even came to me after the talks and discussion sessions to ask questions, which requires the mustering of an awful lot of courage. The next speaker worked for the oil & gas industry modeling the ocean floor, the third for the Transportation Research Laboratory (TRL) doing accident reconstruction and the last was a new physics teacher at Wellington College who had spent the previous five years in the British Army as mechanical engineer and who had served in Basra. The TRL speaker was particularly good - a bubbly Irish lady with curly red hair who did a great job of talking to the students about how she wasn't a particularly motivated student but ended up doing a science degree and a PhD by accident rather than design. They responded very well to her. I thought our experiences provided a fantastic mixture of paths and perspectives. The audience seemed to enjoy it. Two of the teachers took my e-mail address so that we might coordinate future visits of their top classes to our lab at Imperial.

I'm not sure how much of an effect it had on the girls' intentions towards science, though. Originally we were told that all the girls were planning to do physics at A-level, but it turned out that only the ones from the state schools really fit into that category. They'd probably gotten some of the Wellington girls, who were still in the middle of their GCSEs, to attend just to make up the numbers. (As a side note, the person chairing the session was the head of the Wellington physics department. When he asked the girls to picture what a physicist looked like, some of them gave the standard "Einstein" answer, but a group of them answered, "You!", which was quite sweet.) The ones that I had a chance to speak with one-on-one were either still disinterested in studying physics or already convinced that they wanted to do so.

I know the intention of such events is simply to make girls aware that physics is not just for boys. I know that, if the disaffected ones change their minds and decide they want to study science, I won't be there to see that happen. It's tough to come away from these things feeling you've made a difference to their perception. Either you haven't, or they're too shy to tell you that you have. You don't know how many fall into each category. You just have to trust that you've done something for the ones who needed it. I'm finding that difficult right now.
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Comments:
[User Picture]From: anthrokeight
2009-06-23 19:40 (UTC)
I never intended to grow up to be a scientist, and I am not in the least athletic. But I will always remember Ann Bancroft came to my high school my first year. She is woman who was involved with Rod Steiger's polar tripping of the early 90's and part of the first all-woman team to ski across Antarctica.

And I LOVED HER. I loved her because she was tough, and admitted being a woman, while awesome, had challenges in her field. I loved that she was a great story teller, a great PSA for pursuing interests and finding supportive colleagues. I loved that in my Catholic school, which did a lot to reenforce gendered stereotypes, she was there countering them because she had a thing she wanted to do and she did it.

It's so, so, important for all girls, even the girls that aren't going to grow up to do science in University with any great seriousness, to have exposure to women like you. Because if a girl can become a woman who works on the Cassini mission, then she can also open a business, manage a dive shop, join the military, or whatever.
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[User Picture]From: nanila
2009-06-26 16:01 (UTC)
It's so, so, important for all girls, even the girls that aren't going to grow up to do science in University with any great seriousness, to have exposure to women like you. Because if a girl can become a woman who works on the Cassini mission, then she can also open a business, manage a dive shop, join the military, or whatever.

Yes, my talk was by far the broadest in this sense. It was interesting because the other speakers pushed the idea that the girls should study physics. When I re-examined my talk, I discovered that the recommendations I gave at the end were broadly applicable. It's funny that this didn't occur to me until after I'd sat down.
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[User Picture]From: scanner_darkly
2009-06-23 23:32 (UTC)
I think, though, some of the ones that already wanted to be physicists will have an easier time having met you. Or at least be a bit more confident in themselves. I think that's awesome.

When I was a little kid I wanted to be an astronomer. I sat on the roof of my house in West Virginia and stared at the stars for hours on end. I tried to memorize constellations, use binoculars to look at planets, and do all the research I could.

One day at school we met someone who was going to help us figure out what we wanted to do with our lives. Everyone talked about what they wanted to do. I mentioned I wanted to be an astronomer, and from that I got the impression that a) it was boring, and b) it didn't pay well and I'd probably never pay off the student loans I would need to get to get the education I needed for it. That and my failing eyesight kind of doomed my astronomy dreams when I was younger.
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[User Picture]From: nanila
2009-06-26 15:59 (UTC)
I think, though, some of the ones that already wanted to be physicists will have an easier time having met you. Or at least be a bit more confident in themselves. I think that's awesome.

Yes, I think that's the one thing these events can really accomplish, especially at this age. If you want to get them to aspire to be scientists, I think you have to catch them when they're 10-11 years old - and push the message consistently, which is something a one-off appearance can't do.
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[User Picture]From: sekl
2009-06-24 06:01 (UTC)
Remember you are doing your part for proving physicists do not all wear bad sweaters and frazzled hair.

I never questioned that I would find my way in life, so I tended to roll my eyes at these events. But where I grew up, many girls who needed these yay-girls events to encourage them. They served as a sort of counterbalance to what they dealt with at home. One of my friends had the makings of a brilliant electrical engineer, and her family quite literally stood in the way because it was a "male" field and they thought it would hurt her chances of marrying. No seriously.

To this day, I'm unclear. Electrical engineering=lots of males, they wanted her to find a nice male...so why not with the sending of the daughter into this field where she had talent?

Humanity is lovely on toast.

Thanks for getting out and going to this sort of thing.
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[User Picture]From: anthrokeight
2009-06-24 14:23 (UTC)
I love how your Reformatory Girls are wearing sexy belted sheath dresses. In the world of pulp fiction, felons get their outfits from whoever was dressing Jackie Kennedy. That's awesome.
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[User Picture]From: nanila
2009-06-26 15:58 (UTC)
Remember you are doing your part for proving physicists do not all wear bad sweaters and frazzled hair.

Neither am I exactly a fashion plate, though. I'm not sure I help the impression that scientists are weird.

I never questioned that I would find my way in life, so I tended to roll my eyes at these events. But where I grew up, many girls who needed these yay-girls events to encourage them.

Yeah, there's something slightly peculiar about them that I haven't put my finger on yet. I've consistently had good experiences with groups coming to Imperial to hear outreach lectures. I know some of this is because they're self-selected into an interest in science already, but I think it also helps that they're mixed gender, and most single or two-school events.
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