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Creating a buzz about science

Want to engage girls? Let them design their own investigation

Want to engage girls? Let them design their own investigation

In science lessons, my colleagues and I try not to feed pupils with facts. Instead, we present them with opportunities to investigate and uncover the facts for themselves. This tactic has proved very successful, particularly when it comes to inspiring girls.

Although it is difficult to generalise, boys tend to be more easily engaged by whizzes and bangs, whereas girls are more likely to want to see how science is relevant. If we are to tackle the lack of women entering scientific professions, we need to take this difference seriously in our teaching.

So we use Year 7 lessons at Felsted School to introduce students to problems linked to a real-world situations and encourage them to find their own solutions. We make sure the learning objectives are covered, but we give the children the freedom to explore ideas and make decisions about which avenues to investigate. Then we ask them to reflect on the progress they have made.

This learning through doing enables 11- and 12-year-old pupils to engage with scientific ideas that wouldn't normally be studied until three years later at GCSE level. More importantly, it inspires them - and particularly inspires the girls - in a way that develops a genuine interest in science.

The strategy comes to the fore in the summer term. We suspend the timetable and let the students loose on their own project work. Girls often choose to focus on something connected to cosmetics and toiletries.

On the face of it, this may appear to reinforce gender stereotypes. However, we would argue that we shouldn't impose topics on students - they choose their areas of study entirely independently - and the subject area matters far less than what students get out of it. The girls lead their own learning in their own way by selecting topics that interest them. The level of science that can develop from the project is what counts. If engagement and excellence come through studying cosmetics, then so be it.

Below are four projects that have worked particularly well and could be adapted for project work at other schools - for boys and girls.

What is the impact of dry shampoo?

One team of girls decided to analyse hair that had been washed with "regular" shampoo versus "dry" shampoo. They tested hundreds of strands of hair, using agar jelly plates to investigate bacterial growth. Their work covered concepts that are usually addressed at GCSE and above, including identifying bacteria using microscopes and exploring the conditions necessary for microbial growth.

What effects does nail varnish have?

Another group of girls chose to investigate the effects of nail varnish on nails. They not only developed their understanding of the chemical content of the product and the impact of different components on the human body but also learned about the nail and how it grows. Although dermatology is beyond the expectations of the 11-18 science curriculum in England, they studied the root, nail bed, nail plate, eponychium (cuticle), perionychium and hyponychium, as well as the specific function of these structures. The girls were able to isolate the chemical that was known to stimulate nail growth and explored whether this could be used in ordinary nail varnish with the same effect.

How do you make the perfect bath bomb?

A group of girls who explored the characteristics of bath bombs (spheres of dry ingredients that effervesce when put in water) used a range of GCSE-level skills in their practical work. They measured the rates of reaction and applied stoichiometric principles, calculating the formula that produced the highest volume of carbon dioxide for a given ratio of product. They also sought out alternative products that might be cheaper and more effective, questioning whether it was worth paying for bath bombs when the other materials produced the same effect, or better, for a fraction of the cost.

Do heat protection hair products work?

After watching an advert for a haircare product, another group of girls decided to find out if it was as good as the marketing implied. As with the projects above, they had to: collaborate and decide how to carry out their investigation; use repetition to get reliable results; incorporate fair testing; come up with creative solutions to problems; and analyse their results critically, looking for trends.

The girls were so engaged in the project that they wanted to find out more, so they wrote to 30 companies, asking for an opportunity to meet scientists in the field. Estee Lauder invited them to work alongside experts in product research and development, where they learned about contamination control and how to use scientific techniques to ensure consistent quality.

Christina Bury is a science teacher at Felsted Preparatory School in Essex and a specialist leader of education in science for Chelmsford

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