Diversity - 'Black women didn't go into sciences'

10th January 2014 at 00:00
TV astronomer aims to inspire students to take on Stem careers

As a black woman and a scientist, Maggie Aderin-Pocock has had to get past plenty of stereotypes to succeed in her career.

Now the astronomer, who is preparing to become the new host of BBC television programme The Sky at Night, wants more young people with backgrounds like hers to study science and take their place in the industry.

"In the past, women didn't go into sciences and they weren't encouraged to go into sciences, certainly not black women," she told TES. "I remember when I went to Imperial College [London], they were like, `You're a woman. And you're black!' as if they had really hit their quota for that year.

"There are now more women going into science, but the biggest challenge is still tackling people's own perceptions. When kids look at me they don't expect me to say I'm a scientist."

Dr Aderin-Pocock was named as the new face of the UK's longest-running astronomy programme at the end of last year and is aiming to use stargazing as a means of engaging students with science. The key was to catch them while they were young and show them that every culture in history had studied the stars, she explained.

"I use space and astronomy as much as possible to capture children's imaginations and I say to them that across the world every culture has had an interest in astronomy, and that it is part of everybody's heritage," she said. "The leading astronomers 6,000 years ago were from Africa."

During an unsettled childhood, Dr Aderin-Pocock attended 13 different schools and struggled with dyslexia, which led to her being placed in a remedial class. Despite these obstacles, she went on to read physics at Imperial College London.

The TV presenter was speaking to TES ahead of the Association for Science Education conference in Birmingham, England, which this week brought together teachers and academics from around the world to discuss science teaching in schools.

The low representation of women, some ethnic groups and people from more disadvantaged backgrounds in scientific fields is also a cause for concern for the Royal Society, which runs a variety of projects to remove barriers to success.

Professor Dame Julia Higgins, chair of the Royal Society's steering group on diversity, said that this problem represented a "large loss of potential talent" to the UK.

"Restricted opportunity and diversity limits not only UK competitiveness and prosperity but also vitality in the wider scientific workforce and creativity in society," Dame Julia said. "Individuals from lower socio- economic backgrounds, certain ethnic minorities, women and disabled people are all currently under-represented in Stem [science, technology, engineering and maths] education, training and employment."

At present, just 13 per cent of Stem jobs in the UK are held by women. According to Dr Aderin-Pocock, this is because students are being turned off by uninspiring science teaching.

"One of my fears is that we seem to be moving away from some of the hands- on stuff, especially in primary schools," she said. "When I think back to my own experience of science in school I remember dissecting things and blowing stuff up. That's what brings science to life.

"I think where young people start to be turned off by it is when something changes when they go from primary school where it's a bit fun, to secondary school where it becomes a lot less fun."

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