For the past two years my science department has named all our science classes after famous or no-so-famous-but-should-be-famous scientists. It’s certainly more interesting than calling them ‘set 1’ and ‘set 2’ but there’s much more to it than that.
In a recent TeachFirst poll1, only 49% of the public could name a female scientist. This is hardly surprising since women in science are not part of the public consciousness. This is due in part from a vast array of scientific achievements being either attributed to their male colleagues or their part in discoveries played down. This has led directly to the second reason as TeachFirst also stated in their poll:
“Not a single woman’s name features in the national curriculum for GCSE science.4 And in a sample analysis of three double science GCSE specifications from the major exam boards, we found a total of two female scientists named. This compares to the mention of over 40 male scientists, or concepts or materials named after them.”1
This is true, but the context needs a closer look. Yes, there are only two named women in the science curricula and around 40 male names. But this isn’t quite what it seems. Hardly anyone at all is mentioned in the science curricula2. That’s because the science curricula is simply a list of concepts, devoid of any context and missing any human stories of discovery. The male names that are mentioned are only there because their names are given to the many units or concepts in science: Newton’s Laws, Joules, Volts, Amperes, Coulombs, Watts, Celcius, Kelvin, Planck, Avogadro constant, Boltzman constant: all named after men’s surnames. There is only one named after a female’s surname and that is the Curie, named after both Pierre Curie and his wife Marie Skłodowska Curie.
We find ourselves in a circular trap: we don’t know any female scientists because no units are named after them. No units are named after them because their discoveries have not been included in naming of units. Because no units are named after them they are not in the curricula. Because they’re not in the curricula we’ve never heard of them. And so it goes on…
This is where teachers step in. If we just ‘taught to the curriculum’ we’d simply be reading out a list of topics and concepts. To bring these topics and concepts to life we have to engage the children, to draw them in, to make it real and relevant for them. There is one pedagogy that solves this: storytelling. To make a concept mean something we can tell the story of its use and of its discovery. Telling the story of its discovery means we name the individual that struggled, failed, achieved, lived and died to bring us the particular concept. By doing this we name those individuals. By doing this properly we name the women involved along with the men. By telling the stories of these women and their science, we put them into the public consciousness, one class at a time.
I have tried to address these misappropriations in the posters on my lab wall entitled Women in Physics. You can read about that here. Download the poster pack here.
Out of the 8 names, 4 are women, 4 are men. 3 are British, 7 are international. 3 are black. We’ve chosen names that are perhaps lesser known but still have great stories to tell. They have either made Earth-shattering discoveries or have lived amazing lives or worked in fascinating areas of science. Each year two names drop off the end (of Year 11) and two new ones are added in Years 7 and 8. There are enough scientists that we don’t need to recycle names.
By naming these scientists, by naming our classes, we’re aiming to take that dull list of topics off the curriculum and relate to it as what it is: a story of real people with real struggles and real jobs. The purpose of our science education cannot be to produce children who are simply good at a science quiz on a range of facts and units. It has to be a preparation for life, for work, for adventure and for discovery.
It’s part of our remit to create a world, starting by creating a school, where there is balance in all things and where everyone is welcome and can find their place no matter what gender, orientation, colour, creed or religion. No matter what hopes, fears, desires or loves.
Mae Jemison is the name for our new Year 7 Science class. She is a medical doctor working as a GP and doctor in the Peace Corps in Sierra Leone. She has degrees in chemical engineering and African American studies from Stanford University and medical qualifications from Cornell unit ersity. She’s best known for being the first black woman to go into space, becoming the mission controller for the Space Shuttle Endeavour. She has written books for children, has many honorary doctorates and has been inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame and the International Space Hall of Fame. I think she is a great role model for our new science class.
When Jemison was asked why she wanted to work in science and be an astronaut she said she was inspired by watching Star Trek and seeing a black woman in an important command position. (It was African-American actor Nichelle Nichols’ portrayal of Lieutenant Uhura.) Jemison later appeared in an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation herself. Seeing someone like her, up there, among the stars, in an imagined future became her vision.
Teaching has to be this: “people like you have walked this way before, here’s what they did so you can decide to follow in their footsteps or forge your own path. Whatever you decide, here’s what you’ll need…”
That’s why our science classes have names.
(Also or the first time, my A Level Physics classes have names too.)
Well done Ayd – boldly going one class at a time…
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