A call to action: “Learn science and technology in a fun and participative way!” An objective: to foster the interest of girls aged 7 to 12 in science and technology through fun workshops. Activities allow girls to discover the world of research and innovation by learning about great female scientists who have made significant contributions to scientific knowledge. And three scientists: Lada Murcia and Celia Santos, PhD students with the Development and Growth Control Lab, and Teresa Juan, PhD student with the Structural Bioinformatics and Network Biology Lab. These are the three key ingredients of the outreach initiative “Noies al Lab” (“Girls take to the Lab”).
According to a study published in Science, at age 5, children seem not to differentiate between boys and girls in expectations of ‘really, really smart’—childhood's version of adult brilliance. But by age 6, girls are prepared to lump more boys into the ‘really, really smart’ category and to steer themselves away from games intended for this type of child. It is precisely at this age that stereotyped gender perceptions take root—perceptions that have effects throughout life. “These attitudes condition their perception of what type of future career options are available to them,” explains Celia. The information in this study inspired Lada, Celia and Teresa, already active volunteers in a wide range of scientific outreach activities, to launch “Noies al Lab”, an initiative aimed to counterbalance this stereotyping and build awareness of positive female role models in science.
“One look at the career options chosen by boys and girls clearly reveals the social and educational stimuli that lead boys, rather than girls, to opt for technical careers. So we thought it was necessary to do something and provide girls with an experience that could complement their other school activities,” explains Teresa. ‘Noies al Lab’ offers a series of after-school workshops given in civic centres, libraries and through parents’ associations.
“By focusing on girls, we want to increase their interest in science and technology, to make them say: ‘Wow, this is what I want to do!’ Our main aim is to provide a special setting in which they can work. In our experience, girls tend to stay in the background in mixed groups. When you remove boys momentarily from the picture for a time, their behaviour changes. We’ve seen they feel more free to take initiative,” explains Lada.
The workshops offered through “Noies al Lab” are based on discoveries made by female scientists and involve learning about the real applications of these breakthroughs through play. “We want girls to be brought into contact with real science, to get an idea about what it is like to work in a lab, and to allow them to see that they, too, can do this work. We also want to show them role models of female scientists who have made significant contributions to science over history. Even we can be references for them,” adds Celia.
“Drawing on the strength of our range of scientific backgrounds, we give workshops on different topics: genetics, biomedicine, biology and informatics,” explains Teresa. One workshop, for example, is devoted to Rosalin Franklin and involves a game to unravel the genetic code. This helps the girls understand how the genetic code works and even shows them how to take a DNA sample. Another, focused on Ada Lovelace, is about programming and robotics and lets them get to know the pioneer behind the programming language used today.
These young scientists now want to include a chemist to help them plan their activities, to extend the topics covered by the workshops to include chemistry, physics and maths. “The number of men and women choosing to do biomedical degrees is very similar, but in technical degrees, men outnumber women, and this imbalance has worsened over the years. This is why we aim to include technical subjects such as maths and physics in our workshops,” says Teresa.
After running the activities for a few months, the researchers are pleased with how they have been received. “Everyone thinks it is important to highlight the contribution of women to science,” says Lada. “We realize that focussing the activity on girls means excluding boys from receiving the same important messages about gender perception in science, but we think it’s important to encourage and give priority to girls to open their professional futures. We felt that this would be a good place to start,” Celia adds.
When these three researchers were kids, they did not have the chance to participate in similar workshops and would have very much enjoyed some practical experience, as well as a motivating atmosphere. Now, through this initiative, they are sending important messages to girls: “Don't close doors, take advantage of opportunities, and never think ‘I can’t do this’. Instead, just try, and have the confidence to get on with what you would really like to do,” Celia says. “The girls themselves have to be aware of their abilities and shouldn’t let others tell them what these abilities can be used for,” Lada goes on to say. Teresa adds, “girls should be open-minded and find out for themselves what they want to do”.