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Mad Scientess Jane Expat

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Aspirations [20101210|13:50]
Mad Scientess Jane Expat
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When I arrived at a Wolverhampton school to give an outreach event for girls in science yesterday, my heart sank. I could tell immediately that it wasn't a great place. It depresses me slightly that as a visitor to a school, you can tell this simply from the reception area. The condition of the carpets, the locked doors, the administration staff barricaded behind glass and the garish paint scheme all conspire to give such places a grim industrial feeling, even before the harrassed faces of the teachers or the screaming students have become visible. I knew I was going to be shown the top set of Year 9/10/11 pupils studying GCSE science, and I didn't have high hopes for them.

The director of science (DoS), a very organised and efficient blonde with the most remarkable accent, met me at her office. I don't know what this school did to acquire her (perhaps becoming an academy?) but they had best hang onto her with both fists. She looked after me better than people from much nicer schools have done.

The girls filed into the auditorium after I'd had ample time and space to set up my presentations and equipment, and been provided with tea and a jug of water. The first set, the Year 9s (about 14 years old), marched straight in and sat in the front row, smiling at me. The Year 10s and Year 11s wanted to be at the back, but the DoS firmly shepherded them forward. After just a few questions, I recognized that very few of them were near the necessary level of understanding for my talk, so I quickly dialed my speed down several notches and focused on getting them to keep giving me answers, praising them for doing so even when they weren't correct. I skipped a couple of slides showing magnetometer data that were going to be too hard.

An adorable little clump in the first row listened raptly throughout the talk, as did four Year 11s at the back. The talk felt like it took a lot longer than usual, partly because getting the right answers to my questions took time and partly because I could see that a few of the girls were bored and ill-bred enough to show it openly, despite the warning stare of the DoS. Perhaps I should have called them out on it, but I couldn't be bothered. If they didn't want to be inspired, they weren't going to be. The ones that were needed positive encouragement, not to hear their colleagues being shouted at to behave - too much like being in the classroom, I suspect.

We took a break and the little group of Year 9 girls pounced on me and peppered me with more questions, mostly quite personal ones about my life and a few about my work at NASA. I followed up the Cassini talk with a test run of my new theremin activity. This is a 10 minute talk about waves and wave mixing, followed by a chance to try to play tunes on a simple theremin that I'd brought.

What I didn't know beforehand is that waves aren't introduced until A-level physics. This is problematic because my intention with outreach is not to teach. Students may retain a fact or two from my talks but I can't override their teachers' authority by trying to introduce new concepts. None of these girls had finished their GCSEs yet. I tried my best to simplify my explanations. I told them that my speaking to them created waves that caused all the air molecules around them to vibrate and reach their ears to make the sound of my voice. They liked that. I explained constructive interference in this way: If you cloned me and I started saying exactly the same thing I'm saying now at the same time, you would hear me except I'd be even louder. That went down well too. I stumbled over destructive interference, as I couldn't immediately come up with a hand-waving explanation on the fly. They seemed to be okay with the idea that interference made sounds go up or down or become louder or softer. Beat frequencies proved to be hopeless, so I skipped the topic entirely.

This talk needs work. There simply aren't enough explanations in it. The students seemed to grasp the idea of frequency and amplitude at the end when I played them pure sine tones, then a linear sweep and finally a recording of the theremin, so I think perhaps I need to use more sound recordings in my talk.

All this confusion was forgotten as soon as I encouraged the girls to come up and play the theremin themselves. A couple of braver ones had a go, but though I could tell they wanted to, the others refused to be tempted.

At this point I had a brainwave. I simply turned my back on the theremin and started chatting with the DoS. A big group of girls suddenly shot towards it and clustered around it, trying out different distances and motions of their hands to create sounds.

Finally, I handed out the Saturn lithographs I'd brought with me. On hearing that they came from NASA, even the more disaffected ones got excited. The DoS took some photos of me with the Year 9 girls. Some of them lingered to play the theremin a bit more.

Despite this, I was inclined to feel rather down about the experience, until three of the Year 9 girls crept up to me. They offered me their ambitions as if they were precious secrets. "I want to be like you," the small one with the big dark eyes said. "I want to be a botanist and to make medicines out of plants." "That's excellent," I said. She sidled closer, and as she put out her arm, I suddenly realized she was angling for a hug. I put my arm around her and we bumped heads sideways. Her two friends (future brain surgeon, future astrobiologist - a freshly formed ambition after my talk) followed suit.

It made the whole event worthwhile just to have reached those sweet, ambitious, underprivileged girls.

I am always slightly at a loss when I have to respond to students telling me their ambitions. I feel lame just saying, "That's great!" even though I mean it. Should I be doing more? I figure I shouldn't launch into a spiel about how to attain their goals, but I would like to encourage them to perform all the steps they need to do to get there (e.g. continuing to take science courses and applying to university). Should I say that, or is it enough to smile and be enthusiastic? Obviously I can't offer the long-term assistance that they need, being someone who comes in from the outside for the day, but perhaps I should encourage them to ask for support.

[User Picture]From: pax_athena
2010-12-10 14:03 (UTC)
I don't have that much experience, but I did some outreach myself and came to science from a pretty complicated background and so might have been in a position alike those girls at some point - anyway, what works best imho, is a personal story. Something along the lines "It's great and I have a friend who does something alike" and than a few sentences on how she/he reached her/his goal to be an astrobiologist or whoever else. One cannot tell stories alike all the time, of course, but the few times people did tell them to me it was a great encouragement and it gave me a general idea what might come.
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[User Picture]From: nanila
2010-12-12 19:39 (UTC)
This is a really good idea. I need to make a sort of mental filofax of people I know who are in fields that seem to be popular aspirations (e.g. medical doctor, astrophysicist, engineer). Thank you.
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[User Picture]From: flexagain
2010-12-10 14:17 (UTC)
If you think that what they're aspiring to do is great, than tell them why you think that!

Astrobiology (if I've got it right!) in many respects can be considered a slightly more sensible approach to the search for little green men, so yes, very interesting stuff. Things like extremophiles are relevant in this area of work, and you can certainly chat about that sort of stuff (black smokers, life in ice etc)

Likewise Brain Surgery, not exactly what I'd want to do (far too gory!), but how the brain works is certainly fascinating stuff, as is why it doesn't work the way we think it does, and the odd things that happen with brain damage.

Just telling them these sort of things will help their confidence, since clearly talking about their aspirations will demonstrate to them that they're not unreasonable wishes, and other smart people out there find these subjects interesting and engaging.

Anyway, well done with all that. I'm not sure I'd be much good talking to such youngsters, but you've clearly got the knack of it, and are doing lots of good stuff.
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[User Picture]From: nanila
2010-12-12 19:37 (UTC)
I think you're right. I don't have to say too much more to make them believe I think their ambitions are worth pursuing. victorine also suggested I encouraged them to ask for support from their teachers. As long as I can keep my response under three sentences long, I think I won't overwhelm them or lose their attention. :)
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[User Picture]From: chickenfeet2003
2010-12-10 14:26 (UTC)
The depressing thing is that if they are studying GCSE Science, as opposed to Physics, Chemistry and Biology, they likely won't be able to take the "A" level subjects that would give them access to a science degree at a decent university. It's really appalling that children are getting locked out of such things at such an early age.
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[User Picture]From: nanila
2010-12-12 19:42 (UTC)
Really? I thought GCSEs followed by A-levels were the standard here. Is the IB system considered better?
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[User Picture]From: sadira42
2010-12-10 16:05 (UTC)
I don't really know the circumstances of these girls, but you say they are underprivileged. Perhaps you can come prepared with some sort of resources for those of them who tell you their ambitions? Some kind of tutoring, or college preparation resources that may be available in their schools or outside? Books that they may find interesting and could check out of the library? Websites?
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[User Picture]From: nanila
2010-12-12 19:33 (UTC)
Hm, that's a bit much for a response to "I want to be a doctor/biologist/astrophysicist". It could be a useful thing to add to the talk itself, though. Thank you!
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[User Picture]From: nanila
2010-12-12 19:34 (UTC)
Oh! Thank you. I've worked quite hard on learning to write engaging blog entries. I still don't feel I'm great at it, and I'm not sure it's a skill that will ever be of any practical use to me, but I enjoy doing it.
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From: tdj
2010-12-10 21:02 (UTC)
One of our student groups here does a lot of science outreach to underprivileged kids, and they're wrestling with the same conundrum. For many of the students that they talk to, it's practically too late for them to take a (traditional) path to a science degree.

I don't feel that the "That's great!" approach is necessarily lacking. Anyone pursuing a non-trivial dream is going to require different kinds of help from different people at different times of their life. I rather suspect at a brief event like the one you describe few students are looking for a plan (unless they ask for it) - they're looking for inspiration and, perhaps, permission to express their own interests.
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[User Picture]From: nanila
2010-12-12 19:49 (UTC)
Yes, I definitely got the sense that the DoS was doing her best to try and make it so that the environment and the lack of resources at their school wouldn't drag these girls down. It was hard not to get depressed about their prospects, but it sounded like the school was trying very hard, by offering new options for the girls to take engineering and higher level science courses, to keep from failing them.

I think you're right about what the students want from an outreach event like this. I got the sense they didn't want me to plan their futures, they just wanted me to confirm that their goals were both admirable and achievable.
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[User Picture]From: anthrokeight
2010-12-10 22:21 (UTC)
I think with the time you are given, being positive and encouraging and saying "that's so cool! I know someone who..." is a concrete and meaningful thing you can do. Even "oh wow! Do you know about Ben Carson? He's a pediatric neurosurgeon in America and does that kind of work! You should google him next time you are at the library" can be meaningful.

To have a stranger listen to them, and then reaffirm their interests is never going to go astray.

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[User Picture]From: nanila
2010-12-12 19:27 (UTC)
I like that. I will make a mental filofax of people I know in various fields so I can give a quick summary - I want to keep it short - and encourage them to look up further information.
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[User Picture]From: dizzykj
2010-12-11 00:23 (UTC)
Thank you for your blog - it is generally a safe place to be on the internetwebs when I'm dr0nk - informative, interesting, life affirming. I shall go to bed now.
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[User Picture]From: dylsexia
2010-12-11 06:16 (UTC)
I tend to get approached a lot when I am out either drawing or taking photos. People always seem to want affirmation of their opinion. While that may be helpful on a very general motivational level; I tend to go "That's fantastic! ." And so long as the story is margianally relevant, relateable to their interests and interesting or funny people tend to become inspired by it. And I am extremely tangential in those stories... so it ends up as even less relevant and more slice of life... but I think it also humanizes their dream and can make the impossible seem attainable.

Regardless I think it is fantastic that you had the opportunity to reach out in this way! I'm sure you inspired more than you think you may have.

I'm very partial to the theremin. I encourage the idea that childlike play is highly intellectual and that science is fun due to the aspect of discovery; the aspect of play. And the more that you can encourage that idea with children and teenagers the better!
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[User Picture]From: nanila
2010-12-12 19:52 (UTC)
I encourage the idea that childlike play is highly intellectual and that science is fun due to the aspect of discovery; the aspect of play. And the more that you can encourage that idea with children and teenagers the better!

Yes! I think I'm going to use this activity again. I'll make my talk better, and I'll practice a little more on the theremin myself. I can control it to a certain extent but I find it quite difficult to "play" properly. Then I can show them a few more tricks, and when I turn my back they'll have a bit more structure for their play.
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[User Picture]From: victorine
2010-12-11 07:30 (UTC)
In terms of encouraging these young'uns to pursue their goals, I think that in addition to what you're already doing, you might encourage them to speak to their academic advisor/guidance counselor on how they might achieve that goal. "That's awesome! You should definitely talk to your advisor and see what classes you should focus on for that..."

I know that when I was going off to college, I thought I wanted to be an English teacher, but no one really sat down with me and outlined what I'd need to take in order to do that. Luckily for me, I decided after one semester that there was no way I had the patience to teach first year English and chucked that whole idea.
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[User Picture]From: victorine
2010-12-11 07:31 (UTC)
P.S. I think it's awesome that you do these outreach presentations. I could have used a few more female role models at that age.
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[User Picture]From: thefounder
2010-12-12 14:48 (UTC)
you're lovely. :)

i guess the DoS was local, and you'd not encountered a West Midlands accent before? i grew up in Wolverhampton, and although i'm glad i don't have the local accent [my parents are not from Wolverhampton, and most of my pre secondary school friends didn't have particularly strong accents], i always enjoy hearing it. :)

out of interest, which school was it? i'm afraid Wolverhampton is generally rather run down these days. its retail sector in particular has been hit hard by the recession due to the proximity of other major shopping centres [the Merry Hill Centre and Birmingham in particular], and when i was there on a Saturday quite recently it seemed a lot quieter than it used to. it's definitely got its own character though, and while i'm glad i don't live there any more [i needed to move away, and anyway i love Nottingham :)], i always rather enjoy visiting. i'm sorry your experience wasn't great, but i'm glad it had good points. :)
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[User Picture]From: nanila
2010-12-12 19:15 (UTC)
Yes, I think that might have been the first really strong non-Birmingham Midlands accent I ever heard.

I won't name the school here in case this entry ever gets found by some random Google search, but I'll PM you with it. From what I saw from the taxi window, Wolverhampton looked really diverse, so I'd like to go back and visit properly.
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From: pbristow
2010-12-12 17:39 (UTC)
"At this point I had a brainwave. I simply turned my back on the theremin and started chatting with the DoS. A big group of girls suddenly shot towards it and clustered around it, trying out different distances and motions of their hands to create sounds."

Thankyou for giving me my grin back. I was wondering where I'd left it... =:o>
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[User Picture]From: nanila
2010-12-12 19:08 (UTC)
Aw, you're welcome. They gave me my grin back too!
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