BSW: Friday 18/03

It’s the last official day of British Science Week, but that doesn’t really mean anything in the world of Jess. Instead it means one of the biggest days (emotionally) – I’m going back to my old school to talk to the sixth form about being a woman in science. South Hampstead was an incredible place when I was there, full of the future lawyers and models and doctors and fashion pros. School is one of those strange places you’re never totally convinced by: it’s a real treat to go in late, leave early or get a day off, but it’s would be an absolute nightmare to be ‘excluded’. I was never more sure of how much I loved school until I left. I didn’t celebrate how exciting my teachers were until I realised that not everyone was taught by people with doctorates, who brought their experiences of academia and research into the classroom without making us feel silly or immature. Leaving school allowed me to recognise the teachers outside of their curriculum constraints. My teachers were wonderfully well-rounded- they sing in choirs, study history of art and give back to the society around them. They’re not just educators, they’re inspirers: they encouraged us to keep up the things we love and made sure we used our creativity in both the art studio and the physics lab. South Hampstead’s gone through a few transformations since I left, both on the teaching staff and of the building. I was with year 13 in the lecture theatre, which is one of few rooms which hasn’t changed since I left in 2007. Neither have year 13. Compared to other schools I’ve visited these girls are very supportive of one another (they quite literally applaud for minor victories), but given their age, the majority have made their minds up that science isn’t for them. This really threw me at the start- talking women in physics to a bunch of future arts graduates is like selling cakes at a gluten free festival. After a while the audience (and I) warmed up- I managed to make some friends in the crowd and even get in a few laughs. There was a really good level of interest after the ‘talk’ too- I had a queue of questions from aspiring female coders, astrophysicists and bio and civil engineers. This is a generation of young women who haven’t had computer science in their timetable but want to know about where they can learn (check out code first girls, geek gurl diaries, hacking for women and women who code). Incidentally, if you’re looking for a female coding role model, look for Anne-Marie Imafidon, Carrie Anne-Philbin and Yasmin Bey. I told the students about various scholarships for women in science and my top tips for succeeding in grant applications and interviews. My slides are available here.

Here’s Dr Helen Sharman on her experience at A-Level.

I ran down to the Finchley Road to jump on the Jubilee Line down to Westminster, where I spent my one stop on the District Line to St James’ Park convincing a year 12 student to apply for Design Engineering. He was a creative character who’d just been at a careers event run by Tomorrow’s Engineers. I was going to help at Cardinal Hume Centre, a central London space for poor and homeless people. The CHC run a weekly homework club where they work with teachers and volunteers in a warm computer-clad environment. For the majority of the people at CHC, English isn’t the first language spoken at home, and lots accompanied by parents and elder siblings. We’re hosting a British Science Week inspired science fest where the students and families make lava lamps, periscopes, density columns, conductive dough aliens and vanishing water pearls. We tried to come up with activities the students could recreate at home using ingredients their parents were familiar with. It was a pretty big change going from an all-girl talk in a school theatre to a centre for the homeless, but the enthusiasm for scientific discovery is unchanged between NW3 and SW1P. The kids all wanted to take their periscopes home (note to self, pre-cut double sided tape strips next time and take a helper with long nails, oh, and don’t let the kids touch the clean mirrors !!) and not quite anyone there could believe how well they worked. I didn’t sit down or stop from when I arrived to when we packed up- the kids stayed way beyond typical homework time and I’m sure their curiosity carried on to dinner. I was connected with the CHC by Karen Yates, author-come-scientist-come-do-gooder who works here after her days in the Blackett Laboratory. Karen is has similar interests to most of her academic colleagues- she likes her espresso– and has actually written a book about the science within your coffee cup.

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