Three women meteorologists for International Women’s Day 2017

On International Women’s Day 2017 I could write about famous women that lots of people (although still not enough) already know about. I could write honouring the wonderful women in my life, but other social media platforms are the way to do that. Instead I would like to introduce you to three influential voices of women in Meteorology, recognising my multiple work roles as a climate scientist, President of the Royal Meteorological Society and Dean for Diversity and Inclusion. Forgive the length of the post, there is so much to say about each!

Eunice Foote (1819-1888) was both a scientist and a proponent of women’s rights. As has come to light over only the past few years (work by Sorenson in 2011, and more recently Katherine Hayhoe), Foote conducted early work on what we now call the greenhouse effect. The experiments investigated the warming effect of the sun on air, including how this was increased by carbonic acid gas (carbon dioxide), and bear a striking resemblance to some outreach experiments still used today. She also speculated on how an atmosphere of this gas might affect climate. “An atmosphere of that gas would give to our earth a high temperature; and if as some suppose, at one period of its history the air had mixed with it a larger proportion than at present, an increased temperature from its own action as well as from increased weight must have necessarily resulted.”

Her paper “Circumstances affecting the heat of the sun’s rays,” was presented by Prof. Joseph Henry at the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in 1856, three years before Irish scientist John Tyndall started working on the gas. Interestingly, a contemporary account describes the occasion as follows: “Prof. Henry then read a paper by Mrs. Eunice Foote, prefacing it with a few words, to the effect that science was of no country and of no sex. The sphere of woman embraces not only the beautiful and the useful, but the true.”

Eunice was a member of the editorial committee for the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention, the first women’s rights convention to be organized by women, and one of the  68 women and 32 men who signed the convention’s Declaration of Sentiments.  One of the opening paragraphs of this declaration, based on the Declaration of independence reads:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these rights governments are instituted, deriving their powers from the consent of the governed. Whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these rights, it is the right of those who suffer from it to refuse allegiance to it, and to insist upon the institution of a new government, laying its foundation on such principles, and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness”

And it concludes:

“In entering upon the great work before us, we anticipate no small amount of misconception, misrepresentation, and ridicule; but we shall use every instrumentality within our power to effect our object.”

This strikes me as still relevant to both Equality and climate change work today.

Eleanor Ormerod (1828-1901) was the first woman to be made a Fellow of the Royal Meteorological Society. Passionate about insects from childhood, she became an authority on “Injurious insects and Farm Pests”. Her works was honoured in time by Royal Horticultural Society who awarded her the Flora medal, the Royal Agricultural Society who appointed her as consulting entomologist, the University of Moscow from whom she received silver and gold medals from the University of Moscow for her models of insects injurious to plants and the Société nationale d’acclimatation de France who awarded her a silver medal.

Eleanor often tested out the effect of insects on herself, for example:

“Miss Ormerod, to personally test the effect, pressed part of the back and tail of a live Crested Newt between the teeth.”The first effect was a bitter astringent feeling in the mouth, with irritation of the upper part of the throat, numbing of the teeth more immediately holding the animal, and in about a minute from the first touch of the newt a strong flow of saliva. This was accompanied by much foam and violent spasmodic action, approaching convulsions, but entirely confined to the mouth itself. The experiment was immediately followed by headache lasting for some hours, general discomfort of the system, and half an hour after by slight shivering fits.” –Gadow, 1909

Eleanor’s link with meteorology came via her brother, much of her interest being in the relationship of weather to insects. She compiled and analyzed weather data extensively, and published in the Quarterly Journal of the Royal Meteorological Society. I chose Eleanor because of the link between entomology, my late father’s field, and meteorology, mine. In addition, she is said to have been the inspiration for Gaskells heroine in Wives and Daughters and for a short story by Virginia Woolf; an excellent cross-over between science and literature.

(Gadow, Hans 1909. Amphibia and Reptiles. Macmillan and Co. London.)

Joanne Simpson (1923-2010) was the first female meteorologist with a Ph.D. Fascinated by clouds as a child, she might well have gone into astrophysics were it not for the intervention of World War II. As a trainee pilot she had to study meteorology and after getting her training from Carl Gustaf Rossby’s new World War II meteorology programme, spent the war years teaching meteorology to Aviation cadets. Her PhD work focussed on clouds, then regarded as not a particularly important part of the subject, but her early research based revealed cloud patterns from maps drawn from films taken on tropical flights. Subsequently she went on to show how tropical “hot tower” clouds actually drive the tropical circulation, and to propose a new process by which hurricanes maintain their “warm core”.

Following stints at UCLA, NOAA and the University of Virginia, Joanne ended up at NASA Goddard Space Flight Centre where for the first time she met other women meteorologists. It was here that she made what she described as the single biggest accomplishment in her career. She was asked to lead the “study” science team for the Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission (TRMM) – a satellite carrying the first space-based rain radar. Working with project engineers and recruiting many scientists, Joanne worked on TRMM from 1986 until its launch in 1997. TRMM has led to many discoveries about tropical rainfall, including in 2002 the ability to estimate latent heat in the tropics. This work linked directly back to Joanne’s early work on tropical cloud processes.

Rightly recognised, Joanne was granted membership to the National Academy of Engineering, awarded the Carl-Gustaf Rossby Award (the highest honor bestowed by the American Meteorological Society), presented with a Guggenheim Fellowship. I chose Joanne because she served as President of the American Meteorological Society, as I am serving as President of the Royal Meteorological Society this year. You can read much more about Joanne Simpson in this excellent portrait at NASA.

Scientist? Brilliant? Masculine?

brilliant_tToday  the news has been full of a study in the USA which reported that girls as young as 6 or 7 start to remove themselves from challenges associated with being “really really smart”. The research, by Lin Bian, Sarah-Jane Leslie and Andrew Cimpian of the Universities of Illinois, New York University and Princeton  found that around the ages of 6-7, there started to emerge a difference in the way boys and girls viewed being “really really smart” in relation to their own gender.

Wanting to explore the origin of the widespread “brilliance = male” stereotype that has been used to explain the lack of women in many occupations including science and engineering, and been demonstrated in reference writing, (more studies), they used younger participants than previous studies. Over 4 different studies they discovered that 5 year olds were equally likely to rate members of their own gender as being brilliant, but that by age 6-7, girls were statistically significantly less likely to rate members of their own gender as brilliant. A corresponding question about rating pictures of people as ” really really nice” started to reveal the opposite stereotype about women being nicer than men. The older children in the study also started to dissociate high school marks with “being clever” – they identified that girls got better marks in class than boys but did not associate this with girls being clever. (Actually the rest of us could probably learn something from this- some of the cleverest people I know would not “look” clever on paper as they may have finished formal education early and learnt in other ways – too often smart= good marks).

So these studies showed that children are influenced by gender stereotypes in relation to brilliance and niceness sufficiently such that they start to show these stereotypes around the ages of 6-7 (it should be noted that this study included mainly middle-class children of whom 75% were white, therefore it would be interesting to see how the conclusions differ across different cohorts). But it also showed some evidence that it influences choices made. Given a choice of two games, one presented as for those who work really hard, and one for those who are really really smart, both genders showed similar interest in the “try hard” game at all ages, but girls showed significantly less interest in the “really smart” game at ages 6 and 7.

In order to tell if these results actually have an influence on career paths, we would need to complete a longitudinal study of many many children and their influences. One such study is underway as part of the ASPIRES project run from Professor Louise Archer’s team at Kings College London. Whilst we wait for the second phase of that study to take us all the way from 10-18, we can perhaps start to piece together the new work with even younger children.

The ASPIRES work with 10-14 year olds suggests that children of this age and their parents strongly associate science with masculinity and science with cleverness. Whilst girls claim to enjoy science, they can’t see themselves in science careers. Those girls who are defined as “science keen” either by themselves or others often struggle to combine this interest with other stereotypical views of femininity or “girliness” – needing to engage in “identity work” to feel comfortable with their choices. “Science-keen” girls in the Archer et al (2012,2013) studies come in two flavours – those who also excel in other areas, e.g. sport, music etc and take pains to emphasise their “roundedness” and those who adopt the “blue-stocking” or nerdy approach. All the science-keen girls in this study were middle-class.

There are many many studies of  how stereotype threat affects college-age students and beyond, brilliantly collected in “Whistling Vivaldi” which broadens the discussion from gender to other characteristics such as race and ethnicity – or indeed the ivivaldintersectionality of gender and race. A highly recommended read for evidence based studies over a range of conditions and subject areas, you can hear Claude Steele talk about how he came to write the book, or watch a longer Claude Steele lecture.

Given the compelling number of studies demonstrating the awareness of stereotypes at an ever younger age, and the studies of older students showing real effect on subject choice and career path, it would be easy as someone who cares passionately about all children having as many doors open to them as possible to get disheartened and think “it will ever be thus”. However, if stereotypes are starting to take hold and influence choices at 6 and 7 then it is probably also a good time to intervene. Talking to some primary school teachers and children in year 3 and 4 i.e. ages 8-9 it is clear that it is possible at this age to intervene appropriately and reset stereotypes at least in the School environment. My 9 year-old can explain that “it used to be thought women weren’t intelligent enough to make decisions like voting but now we know that’s not true at all”. It is clear to me that we need to begin our work with much younger age groups than we work with traditionally.

And finally, we should perhaps try to convey that “brilliance” has several definitions. Yes, it can be defined as ” exceptionally clever or talented” but it can also mean “of light, radiant, blazing, beaming” . Now that might be something to aspire to for all of us.

Additional resources

Books:

Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do (Issues of Our Time) by Claude Steel (2011)

Pink Brain, Blue Brain: How Small Differences Grow Into Troublesome Gaps – And What We Can Do About It (2012) by Lise Eliot

Parenting Beyond Pink and Blue: How to Raise Your Kids Free of Gender Stereotypes, Christia Spears Brown (2014) Paperback

Ada Twist, Scientist and Rosie Revere, Engineer by Andrea Beatty and Dave Roberts

Videos and web links for resources:

How do we know it’s working? Book two tracking changes in pupils attitudes. A global citizenship toolkit by RISC, 2015 available from www.risc.org.uk/toolkit   Fantastic classroom ideas covering diversity and equality alongside other global citizenship issues.

http://www.amightygirl.com/     Very good for links to books and facebook feed showcasing important women, many of them scientists and engineers.

http://www.ted.com/talks/colin_stokes_how_movies_teach_manhood?language=en

Research papers and similar:

Opening Doors, A guide to good practice in countering gender stereotyping in schools. Institute of Physics Report, October 2015

Gender stereotypes in Science Education Resources: A visual content analysis (2016) Kerkhoven, Russo, Land-Zandstra, Saxena and Rodenburg, PLOS ONE DOI:10.1371/journal.pone.0165037

‘Not girly, not sexy, not glamorous’ primary school girls’ and parents’ reconstructions of science aspirations (2013) Archer, DeWitt, Osborne, Dillon, Willis and Wong, Pedagogy, Culture and Society, 21:1, 171-194, DOI:10.1080/14681366.2012.748676 ASPIRES project

“Balancing Acts”: Elementary School Girls’ Negotiations of Femininity, Acheivement and Science (2012) Archer, DeWitt, Osborne, Dillon, Willis and Wong, Science Education, 96, 967-989

 

 

 

STEAMing ahead

 

54805-kettle_teaserI have spent an inspiring couple of days at the Association for Science Education Conference held here at Reading, picking up ideas (and freebies) for my outreach work. A strong theme emerging across several sessions that I have attended is the potential for learning opportunities that could be gained by working across traditional “arts” and “science” boundary. The newest additional to my acronym dictionary is therefore STEAM, being Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics.

Two sessions were particularly inspiring. Carole Kenrick @Lab13_Gillespie described her time as a “scientist/inventor” in residence in a state primary school, running Lab_13. Amongst the many fantastic activities and initiatives she set up during this time which included helping with curriculum and staff CPD, supporting students to run a science committee and doing some original research with the students that reached the national press, Carole also started a STEAM club. She described how this had evolved from Science Club, to STEM club and finally to STEAM, entraining and enthusing more and more children and parents as it made the transition. By bringing creative arts and science together through, for example, designing robot costumes, backpacks, growing and producing their own plant-based dyes and then using these to make textiles, children who “didn’t like science” began to involve themselves in it, and “science geeks” found new creative talents and skills. Carole has written this up for teachwire and as a blog.

The second STEAM themed session I attended was a keynote lecture by Marcus du Sautoy on The Art of Mathematics and the Mathematics of Art. In a well attended and thought provoking lecture, he focused on particular examples where mathematics is linked, either knowingly or unknowingly, to arts. Firstly music, considering the work of Oliver Messiaen who used repeats of rhythm and chords with different prime numbers in each to great effect in the piece he wrote for a prisoner of war camp quartet, “Quatuor pour la fin du temps (“Quartet for the end of time”) . Also in music, I was intrigued to discover that Indian musicians appear to have been aware of the Fibonacci sequence way before Fibonacci – it describes the number of patterns you can make with successive numbers of quaver beats for example. quaver

The connection between music and maths has often been made, but perhaps the other examples were less familiar. Firstly, in the visual arts, du Sautoy considered the success of Jackson Pollock paintings, attributed to them being fractals, and more than that, having similar fractal dimensions to those that we see in nature. This characteristic means that the level of complexity doesn’t change, no matter how much you “zoom in” to a Pollock painting, or in the natural world, trees. We also found out that to fake this you need to paint as a chaotic pendulum, one where the pivot moves as well as the pendulum. Apparently Pollock was able to do this through a natural combination of drunkenness and bad balance….

And finally to literature. The example used here was The Library of Babel by Jorge Luis Borges. Slightly different from the other examples, it is thought that this was a deliberate attempt by Borges to try to understand Poincare’s mathematics via literature. It dectorusdescribes a library “that some call the universe” and discusses whether it is finite or not, some of the most challenging questions still being addressed in science today.

To my mind, science is already a creative subject. What could be more creative than dreaming up hypotheses, designing experiments, designing technology and equipment to deliver them and making visualisations of our data and results? Recent emphasis on novel visualisations of climate data for example have attracted much attention and featured in Olympic games opening ceremonies. But it is probably true that the majority of people beginning their science journey don’t see it this way. The explicit A in STEAM could help us to demonstrate that aspect and perhaps attract some new interest. It might also encourage the creative side in career scientists, although many of them already demonstrate this.

So, are you ready to put the A into STEM?

 

 

 

 

A significant revision to the climate impact of increasing concentrations of methane

Summary and Frequently Asked Questions relating to the paper:

Radiative forcing of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide: A significant revision of the methane radiative forcing by M. Etminan, G. Myhre, E.J. Highwood and K.P.Shine., Geophys. Res. Lett, 43, doi:10.1002/2016GL071930

Just when I thought it was safe to take a holiday, our paper presenting new detailed calculations of the radiative forcing for carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide and methane was published in Geophysical Research Letters on 27th December. For me, this paper was a blast from the past, as one of the first papers I wrote as a postdoc in 1998 was on a similar topic,  and shares 3 out of 4 authors, myself, Keith Shine and Gunnar Myhre.

The recent paper, co-authored with PhD student Maryam Etminan, describes new research on methane’s climate impact that has been performed at the Department of Meteorology at the University of Reading, UK and the Center for International Climate and Environmental Research – Oslo (CICERO) in Norway; it indicates that the climate effect of changes in methane concentrations due to human activity has been significantly underestimated. It also uses these detailed calculations to revise the simplified expressions for estimating radiative forcing adopted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The new calculations indicate that the direct effect of increases in the concentration of methane on climate is 25% higher than represented by the expressions previously adopted by the  IPCC, making its present-day radiative forcing (relative to pre-industrial values) about one-third as powerful as carbon dioxide.

The paper has attracted some attention on social media as the calculations may have an impact on policy decisions in the future. Therefore I take the opportunity here, with much of the text below written by my co-author Keith Shine, to both summarise the study and answer some of the questions that have arisen so far.

Does this mean that our previous estimates of radiative forcing due to carbon dioxide have been over-estimated?

No. Carbon dioxide remains the most significant greenhouse gas driving human induced climate change.

In fact in this study we also looked at the estimates of forcing due to carbon dioxide using the same physical understanding as used for methane, and found forcing very similar to previous estimates, except for some underestimation at very high carbon dioxide concentrations.

So if the forcing due to methane has been underestimated in the past, why hasn’t the global mean temperature increased more?

The climate impact (e.g. temperature change) resulting from a radiative forcing change in the atmosphere depends on both the radiative forcing and how the climate system responds to that forcing. Although we have shown that the carbon dioxide forcings are little different to our earlier calculations, there are other changes that cause a radiative forcing that have documented very large uncertainties, for example aerosols (and in particular their impact on clouds) that could easily counteract the additional forcing from methane. Even if we knew the forcing accurately, the uncertainty in the climate response is also large enough that it isn’t a problem to reconcile the observed temperature changes. We are in fact refining the uncertainties through this type of study.

So why the focus on methane?

Human activity has led to more than a doubling of the atmospheric concentration of methane since the 18th century. Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas. It is the second most important greenhouse gas driving human-induced climate change, after carbon dioxide. Its warming effect had been calculated to be about one-quarter of that due to carbon dioxide. Methane emissions due to human activity come from agricultural sources, such as livestock, soil management and rice production, and from the production and use of coal, oil and natural gas.

What did you do that was different?

Previous calculations had focused attention on the role of methane in the “greenhouse” trapping of infrared energy emitted by the Earth and its atmosphere, primarily at wavelengths of around 7.5 microns. The vital element in the new research is that detailed account is taken of the way methane absorbs infrared energy emitted by the Sun, at wavelengths between 1 and 4 microns.

The effect of this additional absorption of Sun’s infrared radiation is complicated, as it depends on the altitudes at which the additional energy is absorbed. This determines whether the extra absorption enhances or opposes the greenhouse trapping. It has been known for many years that the absorption of the Sun’s energy by carbon dioxide reduces its climate effect by about 4%, because much of the additional absorption happens high in the atmosphere.

The new calculations of the effect of methane indicate that much of the extra absorption is in the lower part of the atmosphere, where it has a warming effect. The research shows that clouds play a particularly important role in causing this enhanced warming effect. Clouds scatter some of the sun’s rays back into space; it is the additional absorption of these scattered rays by methane that drives the warming effect, a factor that had not been included in earlier studies.

Are these results important for climate change negotiations?

The new calculations are important for not only quantifying methane’s contribution to human-induced climate change, but also for the operation of the Kyoto Protocol to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). This takes into account emissions of many greenhouse gases in addition to carbon dioxide. The emissions of these other greenhouse gases are given a “carbon-dioxide equivalence” by multiplying them by a quantity called the “100-year Global Warming Potential” GWP(100); a similar approach is likely to be adopted by most countries for the operation of the UNFCCC’s more recent Paris Agreement.

The GWP(100) for methane includes not only its direct impact on the Earth’s energy budget, but methane’s indirect role, via chemical reactions, on the abundance of other atmospheric gases, such as ozone. Applying the results of the new calculations to the value of the GWP(100) presented in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) most recent (2013) assessment, enhances it by about 15%. This means that a 1-tonne emission of methane would be valued the same as 32 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions, up from the IPCC’s most recent value of 28. Hence for countries with large emissions of methane due to human activity, it would lead to a significant re-valuing of their climate effect, relative to emissions of carbon dioxide.

Can you be more specific about that?

In fact the GWP values have changed substantially due to new research since the Kyoto Protocol, and these changes are reported in the IPCC reports.

CO2 remains the dominant greenhouse gas emission from both developed (so-called Annex1) countries (77%) and non-Annex1 (65%) countries but using our revised value in place of the IPCC AR5 value, methane emissions now exceed 40% of CO2 emissions in developing countries, in CO2 equivalent terms, up from 36%. In developed countries, they are now almost one-quarter of the CO2 emissions (23% up from 20%).

 

So when might these new values influence policy?

The research team identified a number of uncertainties in the calculation of this enhanced absorption by methane, which will require further research to reduce. The new results are unlikely to be recommended for adoption in international treaties until they have been fully considered by the assessment process of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

The new research was partly funded by the Research Council of Norway, and the UK’s Natural Environment Research Council.

The full paper is   Radiative forcing of carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide: A significant revision of the methane radiative forcing by M. Etminan, G. Myhre, E. J. Highwood, and K. P. Shine, Geophysical Research Letters, published online 27 December 2016, DOI: 10.1002/2016GL071930

It is open access and can be found at http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/2016GL071930/full

 The IPCC working group 1 (2013) assessment report “Climate Change 2013, The Physical Science Basis can be found at https://ipcc.ch/report/ar5/wg1/

 

Balance or blend?

Life may not be a box of chocolates, but could it be a cup of tea?

tea2

The term “work-life” balance is much used and much-discussed. Many surveys and magazine articles discuss whether your “work-life balance” is as you want it to be. In our Athena SWAN applications (gender charter mark run by the Equality Challenge Unit) we are asked to discuss how the University is supporting “work-life balance”. Typically we talk about core hours, nursery care, and any family friendly policies we have.

However, many people object to the term “work-life balance” itself, and I can see why. Balance implies the two things are playing against each other… increase attention on one and the other must pay. How meaningful is it to imply that we are only alive outside of work? Many people are at least partially defined by the work that they do, or by their actions at work. Others are predominantly driven by the work that they do… and the term work-life balance somehow suggests that these people should “get a life”.

The alternative term work-life blend has been around for a while. The thinking behind the term is that in the modern world, with new technology etc, then for many people it is entirely possible to take care of some work things from home and some home things from work. Of course this isn’t possible for all roles… particularly those in the front line service industries, and manufacturing. The other reason for adopting this term is also that it removes the negative connotations of “balance”. With a “work-life blend” a much more diverse set of existences seems possible, all equally valid, and things are not in tension with one another in the same way (there are however only a limited number of hours in the day and therefore there must remain some tension!).

I have previously been rather resistant to the word “blend”. Perhaps it’s because I was thinking about it in terms of paint… if you mix lots of different paint colours together you inevitably end up with a murky mess that isn’t particularly enticing. I also worry that it means never being “off duty” from work, and I at least need to give my mind and body a change of scenery sometimes and find it hard enough to be properly “present” at times outside work as it is.

However, I might be changing my mind. Last night was our Edith Morley lecture given by Karen Blackett, OBE, CEO of media.com. She spoke about having “banned” the term “work-life balance” in her company, using instead, “work-life blend”. Uh-oh, I thought. I’m not sure I can buy that. But then Karen talked about having 6 well defined and non-negotiable strands to your blend, for example fulfilment at work, effective parenting, and such like, and using this to discuss your working practices with managers etc.

And this morning I thought of a new description for “blend”  – a careful combination of different ingredients that are not subsumed by each other but together make up something delicious and supporting. In other words…  my favorite English Breakfast tea!

tea

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why do I “do” diversity and inclusion?

This week my job share in the role of Dean for Diversity and Inclusion,  Simon Chandler-Wilde,  and I have been doing the first of several discussion sessions for staff at University of Reading. We are presenting our initial plans for making our University more diverse and inclusive and asking for feedback on proposed actions to get towards the Diversity and Inclusion targets recently agreed by our University Executive Board (such as increase in women in professorial roles and better representation of women and BAME staff on strategic decision making committees).

One question we got asked was… “you obviously chose to apply for these roles, so what got you into it?”. Here is the answer I gave, the first parts of which I have said before, but the final part I only realised when answering the question!

One of my core values is enabling people to reach their full potential. I have always mentored formally and informally and I love teaching. As a Head of Department I was responsible for career and personal development of academic and research staff. The most joyful parts of my job have been hearing that people have got the degree, new job, promotion or publication that they really deserved. I have literally jumped up and down in my office on several occasions. So a role in promoting and driving diversity and inclusion is very closely aligned to my core values.

I also have a sort of history of challenging gender stereotypes albeit in a parochial way:

When I was 7 I asked my Dad why only boys were allowed to sing in the church choir (he was in it himself). He told me to ask the vicar, who didn’t have a defensible answer (arguments are sometimes made about the different tonal quality of boys voices compared to girls but this was not a high cathedral choir). So two of us joined and pretty soon the number of junior choristers soared now that they could access the talent of the girls.

When I was 12 my male physics teacher told me that girls didn’t do physics. When people tell me I can’t do something, that tends to motivate me to do exactly that (within the confines of socially acceptable behaviour and without breaking laws obviously). Later on, when I told the careers advisor that I wanted to do physics at university, he said “well I suppose you could be a teacher”. I AM a teacher of sorts but I don’t think this is what he had in  mind!

My first (and possibly only) bit of direct campaigning so far concerned the fact that at the boys school in our town they were allowed to study for 10 GCSEs whilst us girls were only allowed to do 8 subjects. To their credit, the school arranged for our Head mistress to teach a class of 6 of us French every morning before school so that we could do 9 subjects, which was a big commitment, but I was never given a satisfactory answer as to why we couldn’t do the same number in the first place.

I have told those stories before. But yesterday it also struck me that there has been another driver in recent years. Having children exposes you to all sorts of gender stereotypes about working parents, mothers versus fathers etc. However, it’s when my children started school, in a primary school that serves a catchment area with great diversity in terms of race, ethnicity, socio-economic background and relationship with education, that I really became aware of some of my own biases. Not only that, but I realised that many of my children’s friends will not have the opportunities that they should have because of various biases, be that relating to gender, race or socio-economic background. Of course at University we see the product of these biases in that students from different backgrounds face additional challenges in applying to, being accepted at and progressing through their courses.

So I took this job in the hope that I can do something, in a small way, to ensure that all my children’s classmates get the opportunities they deserve. The University is my home environment so I start here, but I am now starting to be able to use the learning from this role to challenge my own biases and the behaviour in the School too.

 

 

 

Getting engaged via a diverse curriculum

“The one thing we all want to do is to engage our students”.

So began the Teaching and Learning Showcase on Diversifying the Curriculum that I attended at Reading yesterday. If my experience of this showcase of 5 different curriculum development projects across campus is anything to go by, the speakers know a lot about engaging students. Personal experience tells us that we learn more when we are engaged, and we engage when we can identify with what we are seeing, hearing and reading. Thus the recognition that diversifying our curriculum in terms of race and ethnicity is a natural conclusion in the light of the much publicised BME attainment gap in HE  and the increasing diversity of the students in our global university.

Dr Rebecca Harris from the Institute of Education kicked off the session relating their personal experience teaching secondary school teachers to deliver a diverse syllabus in their schools.  The issues raised by trainee teachers such as fear of offending no doubt also ring true for many of us, but can lead to “colour-blind” curricula which merely avoid the issue – often not successfully. Dr Harris also considered the concept of a “balanced” syllabus. As a climate scientist, I am used to talking, or indeed ranting, about the importance of a balanced approach in dissemination, but as was pointed out yesterday, even balance is a relative term and depends on the individual.

Dr Nicola Abram and Dr Nicole King from the School of Literature and Languages also talked about the importance of starting with a key part 1 module, in their case “Research and Critical methods”, so that students learn to challenge the classical canons of English Literature from the very start of their university career. This was achieved by adding new texts, for example essays by Zadie Smith and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. As this module involves around 200 students and therefore lots of staff, a happy by-product is that this redesign has also influenced other staff across the School.

Did you know that, as far as we are aware, Reading was the first UK University Department to hire a specialist lecturer in non-Western Philosophy? Nope, me neither. Dr Shalini Sinha now offers lectures and modules on Indian Buddhist and non-Buddhist Philosophy at a variety of levels, and crucially, includes 3 lectures on non-Western Philosophy in the first year module Human Nature. Western Philosophy has traditionally been very white male dominated and highly theoretical, but the non-Western view offers students the chance to consider the big questions such as who we are, how we should live, what it is to suffer, from very different perspectives. Again, the approach is to introduce a diversity of views early on in the programme, to contemporise the issues, link to students values and embed throughout lectures, seminars, essays and exams.

The sole STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Medicine) offering was from Mrs Cristina Duckett from Construction Management (note to self… talk to STEM schools!) who neatly demonstrated that even the (ahem) driest of subjects, building regulations, can be a vehicle for diversifying the curriculum. Design and construction of buildings with ostensibly similar functions in different societies will reflect differing history, values, religious practices, climate and customs. Asking students to compare, for example, two house designs or two buildings for worship in different countries can bring in many aspects of diversity.

The final project returned to the importance of diverse curricula for prompting students to question their own sense of identity and values. Dr Julia Waters from Modern Languages and European Studies runs a Part 3 module on French Caribbean Literature which attracts a high proportion of BME students, including overseas and visiting students. French Caribbean literature is a relatively young literature and students have to confront assumptions not only about identity, European supremacy, language politics, post-colonial theory and black consciousness movements. Dr Waters finished with some very valuable reflections on her experiences, including her honesty about her own discomfort teaching this subject as a “white, middle-class woman” and incorrect assumptions that Black and Caribbean students would have insider knowledge about slavery, colonisation and contemporary world politics.

From history and education, English and French Caribbean literature, philosophy and construction, the common thread yesterday was that diversifying the curricula we teach begins with reflecting on our own practice, experiences and values, and how these colour (word chosen deliberately) our teaching. Finding ways to engage students with this thought process for themselves needs to  be embedded throughout our programmes, not just in a “Diversity silo”, and to start in Part 1, so that it carries through the rest of a student’s learning experiences.  This is a prime example of exploiting the so called “habit discontinuity hypothesis” which  states that when a context change disrupts individuals’ habits, a window opens in which behavior is more likely to be deliberately considered. Going to University is a major context change – giving us an exciting opportunity for all our diversity and inclusion work.