The European Commission recently reported that up to one million extra researchers would be needed in the EU by the year 2020. Approximately half the population of the EU is female so one would expect that this ratio would be carried through into the field of research. Disappointingly, despite the best efforts of many countries including Ireland to give women greater access to STEM education, research continues to show disappointing results. Currently only 30% of those working in scientific research fields across the EU are women (She figures 2009). To address this discrepancy and harness this well of talent it is obvious that an innovative worldwide multi-dimensional policy-making approach is urgently needed. In June 2012 the European Commission launched a new three-year campaign targeted at getting more teenage girls interested in studying and pursuing careers in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM). The programme which was launched by European Research, Innovation and Science Commissioner, Máire Geoghegan-Quinn will cover all 27 EU member states for the next three years.
The SciFest programme was launched nationwide in Ireland in 2008. The aim was to encourage in second-level students, both male and female equally, a love of STEM through an investigative approach to learning and to provide an opportunity for students to display their scientific discoveries. In the 5 years since the launch participation in the programme has grown by an average of approximately 20% each year. In 2012 a total of over 3400 students exhibited almost 1500 projects at regional SciFest science fairs (SciFest@College) in third level colleges. Just over a further 900 students exhibited almost 380 projects at SciFest in-school (SciFest@School) science fairs.
The evidence of increased participation in SciFest by girls begins at school level. SciFest@School was piloted in 2011 and ran in 10 schools in 2012. Of the 10 schools 3 were girls schools and the remaining were co-educational schools. No boys schools participated. Most interesting however is the continued increased participation of girls in the SciFest@College strand and the number of top awards that go to projects entered by individual girls or by all-girl teams. In 2012 the percentage of girls participating in SciFest@College rose to an all-time high of 64%.
Participation in SciFest@College by gender:
SciFest@College 2012 took place in 15 venues (14 Institutes of Technology and the University of Ulster, Derry) from March to June 2012. In each venue a top project was selected to go forward to a national competition which was held in Intel Ireland in October. Of the 15 top projects (25 students), 11 were entered by girls (7 individual and 4 group), 2 were entered by groups that consisted of both boys and girls and only 2 were entered by boys (1 individual and 1 group).
A more detailed examination of the distribution of the special awards in each of the 15 SciFest@College venues provides further evidence of the enthusiasm of girls for participating in SciFest. Eight of the 15 Abbott-sponsored Runner-up Best Project awards were presented to girls (2 individual and 6 group projects). Fourteen Maths in Science awards, sponsored by NCE-MSTL, were presented nationwide; the recipients of these awards were again mainly girls ((4 individual and 6 group projects). Girls also came out on top in chemistry, winning 11 (5 individual and 6 group projects) of the 15 awards which were sponsored by PharmaChemical Ireland. The SEAI Sustainable Energy awards and the Discover Sensors awards sponsored by the Discover Sensors Project had an almost equal distribution between girls and boys but girls had a definite edge when it came to presenting their work to the judges – 9 of the 15 SciFest@College 2012 BT Best Communicator awards were awarded to girls (1 individual and 8 group projects).
Looking at the participation numbers and distribution of awards by gender in SciFest 2012 it becomes obvious that girls, when given the opportunity to participate in STEM, perform as well, or indeed better, than their male counterparts. In SciFest girls are given an equal opportunity to participate in a local, stereotype-free non-threatening environment. Gradually a bank of positive female role models and potential mentors is being built up. These alumni will serve to inspire and motivate second-level students. Their support and mentorship and the continued success of girls at SciFest can make a major contribution to developing girls’ confidence and interest in STEM. This in turn will help change attitudes and encourage more girls to pursue the STEM subjects into third level and as a possible career choice.
SciFest@College 2012 – A selection of award winning students:
SciFest is a series of one-day science fairs for second-level students hosted at local level in schools and at regional level in the Institutes of Technology (ITs) and the University of Ulster, culminating in a national competition for the overall winners from the ITs. The aim of the project is to encourage a love of science through active, collaborative, inquiry-based learning and to provide a forum for students at local/regional level to present and display their scientific investigations. www.scifest.ie
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