Logical science: Ending stereotypes must start younger

26 Sep 2016

Image: Yuganov Konstantin/Shutterstock

It is time to end career stereotyping in Irish schools and allow younger girls to dream of being whatever they want to be.

I’ve said it before, if you ever want to supercharge a new year from the get-go or at least hit the ground running on a positive note, just head down to the BT Young Scientist & Technology Exhibition (BTYSTE) in January.

Your faith in ingenuity, inventiveness and sheer enthusiasm and the promise of a nation’s young people will be restored in moments.

You will be inspired, invigorated and maybe even a little transformed by the energy and imagination in the room as kids from age 12 up to 17 put their inventions and projects on display.

‘15 is too late to tackle career stereotypes for girls. Science education must begin much earlier’

Last year, more than 550 projects were exhibited to over 60,000 visitors. Outside of the All-Ireland or the National Ploughing Championships, it is hard to imagine any other event getting committed media coverage at the scale that BTYSTE does.

It is evident that, when it comes to participating, the girls now outnumber the boys and they are making waves on a global scale.

Inspirefest 2017

Just last week, Ireland’s reigning Young Scientist champions – a duo from Loreto Secondary School in Balbriggan – landed third place at the European leg of the competition. Transition year students Maria Louise Fufezan and Diana Bura wowed the Young Scientist judges earlier this year with their project, ‘An Investigation into the Effects of Enzymes Used in Animal Feed Additives on the Lifespan of Caenorhabditis Elegans’.

The Finnish model

Important changes are afoot in the Irish education system that are designed to sustain and reinforce this momentum to ensure the jobs of the future will continue to land in Ireland but also be created by Irish companies too.

In recent weeks, Education Minister Richard Bruton, TD, announced a new plan to make the Irish education system the best in Europe by 2026.

The plan targets a 30pc increase in the number of students from disadvantaged areas attending higher level as well as better supports for children in difficulty. Coding is to be rolled out to primary schools from 2018 and computer science is to be a made a Leaving Cert subject. New languages such as Mandarin are also to be introduced at third level.

All of this is designed to ensure Ireland wins the war for talent in the 21st century.

Having watched Michael Moore’s wonderful film Where to Invade Next, I suspect Finland might have a thing to say about Ireland’s 2026 ambitions. In Finland, kids don’t start school until seven. There is no homework and every community regards its local school as the best school in the country. There are no elite schools, no privileges and no discrimination. Instead, the children are imbued with a moral sense of life-long learning.

What was arresting about the Moore documentary, in particular, was how the teachers came across and thought of themselves. In Finland, teachers enjoy the same status as doctors or lawyers. They spoke with confidence and commitment. They have a certain latitude in how they went about educating young people who go to college at a greater proportion than their international counterparts.

Their vigour and commitment reminded me of the pride you see on the faces of the Irish teachers who get to bring students and projects to the BT Young Scientist event, and I’ve often said to myself: “If only we could bottle this enthusiasm.”

Well, the Finns have. And if Minister Bruton wants to ensure his ambitions don’t wallow amidst the mountains of failed Irish policies, he should take note. Teachers, not dictate, are the key to this.

Role models for girls

Just as importantly, we need to build on the momentum that it is Irish girls who are leading the charge just by being themselves. For the past two years running, for example, Lauren Boyle and Niamh Scanlon were named EU Digital Girl of the Year for 2014 and 2015 respectively .

This is encouraging, but we are only at the tip of the iceberg. We have to ask ourselves: is the same encouragement, commitment and support enjoyed by Niamh, Lauren and various Young Scientist winners of recent years par for the course in Irish schools?

Pioneering research by Accenture in collaboration with Siliconrepublic.com in 2014 involved 1,000 female secondary school students and young women aged 18 to 23. This study found that parents’ and teachers’ promotion of traditional career paths (such as teaching and nursing) for girls is a decisive factor influencing students’ subject and career choices. Sadly, this is also one of the reasons why only 25pc of science and tech workers in Ireland are women.

The study found that 44pc of the students cited “the perception that STEM subjects are more suited to males than females” as one reason for the low participation of women in the science and tech industries. One in four teachers said they believe that promotion of so-called “girl career paths” only contributes to the stereotype.

That survey was over two years ago but it is hard to imagine much has changed despite positive examples like our EU Digital Girls and BT Young Scientist winners.

Sooner rather than later

My concerns about stereotyping and the need to eradicate it were reinforced last week while at the BioPharma Ambition event at Dublin Castle. I met Bernadette Doyle, VP of technical development, new products and global supply at GlaxoSmithKine – one of the world’s biggest pharmaceutical companies with revenues of £23bn a year.

Doyle is living the dream. At the pinnacle of a thrilling global career she lives in Kinsale, Co Cork, and it is her job to mastermind the global manufacture of GSK’s products.

As we chatted, she said that her love of science and courage to pursue a career in pharmaceuticals was thanks to a brilliant teacher who taught through discovery and experimentation rather than by rote.

While based in Singapore with GSK, Doyle worked with advertising giant Saatchi & Saatchi to encourage girls to take up science subjects much earlier and break through the stereotypes. “15 is too late to tackle career stereotypes for girls. Science education must begin much earlier,” Doyle said with conviction.

She is right.

If Minister Bruton is sincere in his ambition to make Ireland’s education the envy of the world – and hey, let’s feature in the next Michael Moore movie while we’re at it – he and others need to back this up with the courage of their own convictions.

Science and technology aren’t just for a few; they represent opportunities for all kids to break through class, economic and geographic barriers, and, fundamentally, destroy the staid old stereotypes. Education in these areas comes through discovery, not just textbooks and exams designed around memory rather than instinct or curiosity.

Teachers in Ireland need to feel empowered and good about what they do, not tangled up in union disputes over pay deals. People need to be empowered, not blinded by the fog of war or lack of opportunity or encouragement.

If you doubt me, come down to the BT Young Scientist Exhibition in January. See the confidence in the children’s eyes. Observe their teachers’ pride. Witness courage with your own eyes.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years