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Science and the sensitive girl

The programme for the thousands of events in this national week of science, engineering and technology (SET-97) is full of pictures of girls doing science. That is no doubt intentional. There is a campaign to encourage more girls to choose subjects which were traditionally male and thereafter to pursue careers using their skills. A report from the Department of Trade and Industry, Breaking the Mould, reinforces the message and tackles head on some of the obstacles to what is meant to be a national priority.

In Scotland, satisfaction at the continuing appeal of Higher sciences to girls, compared with the A-level picture in the south, should not obscure the wider picture. Physics is almost the only subject in which girls are not outperforming boys, and female engineers at our universities remain an exotic species. At the same time higher education finds it more difficult to get well qualified candidates in engineering and the physical sciences than in other faculties. Girls would hold the key to better quality if their numbers grew. In turn, the national need to compete with our economic competitors would begin to be answered.

The DTI report is based on analysing 100 research papers over the past 16 years under the auspices of GASAT (Gender and Science and Technology), and identifies some of the barriers. Girls are often alienated by science presented in an impersonal and value-free way. They are more concerned about global and environmental issues, tend to be opposed to weapons and dislike teaching where there is no significant social context. They favour personal creativity rather than technical expertise. In one experiment girls focused on mending objects like clocks while boys were pulling them to pieces, using the language of destruction.

The report suggests that teaching should take account of gender differences. Role models can help. A Government-sponsored magazine, X2 - the mystery of the vanishing girls, suggests "makeovers - how science can change your life" with examples of practising and aspirant scientists and engineers, such as a 30-year-old analytical research chemist at the National Museums of Scotland and a sixth-year girl from Golspie High who is considering a career in engineering. Single-sex teaching environments may help girls achieve, as the research indicates, but given sensitive leadership by teachers they are not essential.

H 23 TES march 21 1997

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