Monday, 18 March 2013

ScienceGrrl celebrates International Women's Day - with TASTE, in Uganda


I'm really chuffed - as we say in Yorkshire - to introduce this guest post from Amy Buchanan-Hughes, founder of The African Science Truck Experience (TASTE). TASTE runs a mobile science laboratory in rural Uganda so that students in underprivileged secondary schools can get a hands-on experience of science.

According to an earlier post on this blog, TASTE’s copy of the ScienceGrrl calendar is in the “most intriguing” location worldwide. Following the calendar’s first Official Engagement in the field this Friday, I thought ScienceGrrl’s fans would be interested to hear about how it has been inspiring Ugandan girls to think beyond their usual narrow horizons.


Uganda is a difficult place to be a woman. One day, I asked to borrow a bike to go from my village to the nearby town. I was met with awkward surprise from my friends. “But Madam Amy… if a girl rides a bicycle, she can lose her virginity, and then nobody will marry her.” The outrage that this stirred in me made me even more determined than usual to fight against the gender stereotypes!

International Women’s Day is a public holiday here, so we at TASTE had a whole day free from our regular teaching programme with the mobile lab. In honour of the occasion, I decided to hold seminars exclusively for girls in three different towns. We went as a group of four women scientists to talk about the rich variety of careers that are open to the girls, should they continue to study sciences at A-level and university. We elicited some giggles when we lined up to demonstrate the ‘evolutionary’ line of women scientists: from Holly, a gap year student who’s going to study civil engineering at Sheffield University, to Lina, who worked in the UK civil service following a Bachelor’s degree in Natural Sciences, to me, with a MSci in Biochemistry, and finally our esteemed guest Dr Elizabeth Kyewalabye, the third woman ever to qualify as a veterinary doctor in Uganda, now with a string of high profile scientific jobs to her name.


Dr Elizabeth Kyewalabye inspires girls to follow in her footsteps

First, I should explain why we were so keen to encourage the girls to pursue science in particular. While doing research for TASTE, I was particularly interested in local perceptions of gender and of how it affects scientific ability. I was not exactly thrilled by the results. For example, a comment on a major Ugandan news website says “Boys have more chances of studying by revising their notice [notes] while girls have less time due to their Nature. When girls are washing boys are studying and when boys are reading again girls are cooking… This cannot be changed because it is a Natural order.” Also, when I asked the head teacher of a local mixed-sex school why few girls study sciences, he replied that “Pretty girls spend all their time with boys instead of studying, so they only have time to do easy subjects like arts. Science subjects are harder so only ugly girls can do science subjects.” Charming.

With these attitudes commonly accepted as truth, girls quickly lose confidence about their ability in the sciences, and their performance slips. We teach from Senior 1 (the equivalent of year 7 or 8 in the UK) to Senior 4 (when students sit their O-level exams), and in all of the thirteen schools we currently work with, I have seen the same story: in Senior 1, the girls dominate the science lessons, answering and asking questions enthusiastically, and taking the lead in small group work. By Senior 4, however, they are quiet and reserved, allowing the boys to take over, and suddenly discovering something very interesting on their desk when they are asked a question.

During our Women’s Day seminars, we used our own experiences to tell the girls that their gender should never put them off studying sciences and choosing science careers. We then focused on introducing career paths that most students have never heard of. Students here aspire to be doctors, nurses or engineers, because they have heard that these careers are well paid and respected. These are all great jobs and, indeed, they are very much needed in Uganda. But there is a whole wealth of other careers that these young people could and should be aiming towards, that they simply have no awareness of.


Students are told to aim for good jobs, but there is usually little or no career advice provided by their schools

A lot of the problem lies with the local teachers, many of whom rarely venture beyond their own town. On the first page of students’ exercise books in Senior 1, I found the opening question of “Why do we study Physics?” The answers, dictated by teachers, were typically listed as: “To pass exams. To understand physics. To get jobs as engineers.”

However, the real horizons are wider than they can possibly imagine. In 2011, the Ministry of Education in Uganda published a list of the eight most marketable career fields in Uganda for the near future:
  1. Health and medical services
  2. Biotechnology
  3. Agriculture, forestry and natural resources
  4. Information Communication Technology (ICT) Applications
  5. Fisheries and aquaculture
  6. Environment
  7. Energy – solar/wind
  8. Manufacturing and process engineering
Reading down this list, I noticed one thing that they all have in common: unsurprisingly, they all rely heavily on sciences. TASTE’s mantra in lessons is to “Illustrate, instruct and inspire”, and the seminars gave us a great opportunity to do the “inspire” part, by showing the girls how a background in science could lead to them doing jobs that could improve not only their own lives, but their whole country, and even the planet.
Up until this point in the seminars, the girls were paying attention carefully, but they were very serious. However, when we brought out the ScienceGrrl calendar, their faces lit up.


Sometimes language is a barrier, and culture even more so, but each picture spoke a thousand words. Suddenly, our words became reality, as we told the girls about each woman in each picture: “This lady tries to make artificial bones out of chemicals because she thinks we could use them as building materials someday” – cool!


“This lady is finding ways of using sunlight to make energy, without polluting the environment” – how useful that would be for Uganda, which currently relies almost exclusively on hydroelectric power. And how about “This lady just loves science so much that she writes songs about it!” – that got the loudest laugh of the day.
After showing them all the pictures, we passed the calendars around, and suddenly we couldn’t keep order as the girls crowded around trying to find out more.


For the hundreds of girls we teach, there was no better way for us to communicate ‘YES YOU CAN’ than by showing them these real examples of real women scientists. In the end, we literally had to drag the calendars away to move to the next school, promising as we left that we would bring the calendars back for the girls to read at another time. My hope is that reading the biographies will fire their curiosity, and that in a few years to come some of these girls might even feature in a Ugandan version of the calendar!


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