Mad Scientess Jane Expat (nanila) wrote,
Mad Scientess Jane Expat
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"Girls Into Physics" event at Wellington College

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.
Tags: navel-gazing, outreach, science
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