Science gets image makeover

23rd June 2006 at 01:00
Company shows the girls it's not all about old, mad professors, reports Mike Lewis

Blonde, youthful, gregarious and female, Wendy Sadler could not be more different from the stereotypical image of a mad professor.

"Old, eccentric and male with crazy hair, dressed in a white coat and working in a lab all night," she says.

Herself the daughter of two scientists, Ms Sadler, 33, is director of Science Made Simple, a Cardiff-based company which aims to inspire the next generation of boffins.

It is in the middle of a pilot project entitled Science and Engineering Superstars, for pupils aged seven to 11, in 20 Welsh primary schools.

Developed with the Assembly government and Women into Science and Engineering (Wise), the project finishes next month.

"It's important to get our message across to children of this age before stereotypes are ingrained," says Marie-Noelle Barton, a director of Wise.

"We are presenting a sort of interactive performance," says Ms Sadler. "One of our six role models is a female engineer who designs bridges, so we will be discussing the forces at work there and the materials required to build them.

"We will also be getting children to think about the special powers of their superheroes such as X-ray vision, super-strength, and the ability to fly. One of our scientists has an infra-red telescope through which she can see dust clouds in space."

Science Made Simple regularly provides high-quality shows for schools and festivals, develops educational materials and products, and trains science communicators of the future as well as writing science articles and books, and working with the media on popular programmes.

The team is concerned at the lack of physics teachers in secondary schools, which it attributes to an ageing population.

"Chemists or biologists are frequently called upon to teach physics when perhaps they aren't as excited about the subject as someone who really likes it," says Ms Sadler. "All three of us are physics graduates and we focus on the physics aspects of science."

Most tellingly, Ms Sadler, Helen Lloyd and Becky Read, the two science communicators who work alongside her, have stormed the gates of what was once regarded as a male bastion.

"The fact we are young and female certainly breaks the traditional male image of the scientist," Ms Sadler says "It is important to promote science to everyone, but the fact we are all female undoubtedly means we are role models for schoolgirls. We have shown that you can be a scientist as well as being female."

According to Wise, 18 per cent of girls pursue these subjects in higher education compared with just 7 per cent at the outset of the campaign in 1984.

"All of us in the community have raised awareness about the exciting opportunities in science and engineering for women," says Ms Barton.

"Employers now know it makes sense to employ female engineers as well as men. Men and women approach things differently so it's a good idea for a team of engineers to contain both genders."

Ms Sadler launched the company four years ago. "I kept getting more and more calls from schools about music and science," she says. "Eventually I had built up enough work to be able to take on other people.

"We have gone from having one part-time presenter to three full-timers.

Last year we reached more than 40,000 students - this March alone, when we went to South Africa for an international festival, our shows were seen by 7,000 students."

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