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The bust of physicist Lise Meitner in Berlin

Three cheers for Lucy

As the great women scientists show, science is good for girls and girls are good for science, says Dan Sullivan

Posted by Stephanie Broad | November 25, 2015 | School life

Boys are different to girls. It’s an obvious statement to make, but boys generally like to learn using graphics, drawings and being able to move around, imitate and act out. Girls like to discuss, to ask questions. Importantly, girls like to solve a problem by working with others. Different approaches, but both ideal for learning science.

It was after a primary school science class using Empiribox’s system, in which children work in pairs, that a girl called Lucy (aged nine) said: “We used all kinds of equipment I’d never seen before and did lots of different stuff with it. I had such a good time. This is what I want to do when I grow up. Girls can be scientists too, I didn’t know that before!”

Why didn’t she know? She most likely knew about being a teacher, nurse, ballerina, singer, writer, footballer, actress, doctor and vet – but a scientist?

To be fair, she’s not alone. Surveys suggest that most people in this country would struggle to name a female scientist and if they could it would probably be Marie Curie, one of the first well-known women scientists in modern society. She was known as the ‘mother of modern physics’ and was the first woman to be awarded a Nobel Prize and the first person to win two Nobel Prizes in different science disciplines, chemistry and physics.

So how about naming a few more women with the ‘wow’ factor next time you’re taking a science class?

Joy Adamson, a conservationist, who wrote a book about raising a young lion cub that became the internationally successful film ‘Born Free’.

Mary Anning, a self-taught palaeontologist, fossil hunter and collector. She was only 12 when, with her brother, she found a complete ichthyosaur skeleton.

Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, the first woman to complete the medical qualifying exams in this country and the first woman physician in Great Britain.

Eva Crane was a bee scientist, who founded the International Bee Research Association.

Then there is Lise Meitner, one of the great physicists of the twentieth century who famously did not get to share a Nobel Prize for her work in discovering nuclear fission with Otto Hahn, almost certainly because giving an award to a ‘woman’ was seen as ‘controversial’ at the time. And one more – Caroline Herschel, the first woman to discover a comet. She worked alongside her brother William, leading to the discovery of the planet Uranus too.

The problem here is not the difference between boys and girls, the way they learn and what they do with that learning when they’ve left school. The problem here is that women scientists haven’t had the press they deserve. We all learn about the great Victorian and 20th-century scientists who helped revolutionise modern industry and society. We hear little about the women. Perhaps young Lucy’s remark was more astute and far reaching than she can have imagined.

The challenge now though is holding Lucy’s attention, ensuring she maintains this interest and carries it through to secondary school. Many people – and that includes parents and teachers – believe that if girls show no interest in science or maths, there's little anyone can do about it. Professional observers like myself would suggest that while interest is certainly a factor in getting older girls to study and pursue a career in these disciplines, more attention should be given to building confidence in their abilities early in their education. If Lucy has the confidence (and encouragement from others) that she can become a scientist, my money’s on her feeding off that and achieving her goal.

One of the most important groups of people here is primary school teachers. It’s immensely important we build on the good work being done in primary schools and help support primary school teachers awaken the wonderful future scientists in their classes, as well as do their bit in giving women scientists a big build-up with the girls and the boys in their class.

Dan Sullivan is managing director of Empiribox W:


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