David Willetts has said they're the way to get children interested in science. But it's a naive view, as young people will tell you
According to the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA), subjects traditionally dominated by men, are still dominated by men. At best, the percentage of female students has stayed roughly the same; at worst, it's dropping. Rowenna Davis's report on this data finishes with a question: "Are schools doing enough to spark girls' interest in maths and engineering?" Well, David "two-brains" Willetts, minister for universities and science, has an answer. As he told a crowd of space fans last month: "There are two things that get kids into science – dinosaurs and space."
When he repeated this point at the Royal Institution the following week, I wasn't the only one to raise an eyebrow. The Guardian science blog ran a neat cartoon, and a #spacedino hashtag breezily made its way around Twitter. More seriously, a teacher blogged that Willetts's comments were "simplistic and naive" even "downright patronising" to young people. I wouldn't deny many kids do enjoy space and dinosaurs. But there is a lot more to science, and a lot more to young people.
Last Friday saw the presentation of the SciCast awards. SciCast is a project getting young people to share videos they have made about science, and every year they host a "glittering awards ceremony" for the best films. This year's overall winner is, indeed, about space. It is also about history, gravity, mass, weight, music, Lego and puns. I can also recommend a clever animation on the Doppler effect, a slightly surreal global warming rap and a (plasticine) rat dissection. My personal favourite simply shows off something students found while playing with water on a hot surface (do watch to the end, it's lovely).
Last year's Case for Space report stated space was the second most popular factor motivating people to physics degrees. But this is a survey of the people the inspirational power of space works for, not those it left out. It studied the people who ended up in physics. That is, those people within that "physical sciences" category the HESA data notes is still only 41% female (and, I'm often told, could do with upping the numbers, regardless of gender identity).
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