Reflections on WISRNet Shadowing Scheme – 2

Dr Emily Winterburn (Visiting Fellow, School of Philosophy, Religion and History of Science, University of Leeds) reflects upon her experience shadowing Dr Samantha Pugh (Chemistry Faculty Student Enhancement Officer, School of Mathematics and Physical Sciences, University of Leeds)

ChemistrySamantha Pugh is the Faculty Student Education Enhancement Officer based in the Chemistry department at the University of Leeds. She has a PhD in colour chemistry, and has taught on various courses in the department and now works on developing the student experience, in particular, helping the students to see and experience the types of careers available to them in industry. This involves devising courses that show the role of chemistry in the world, and the processes involved (and jobs within that chain) in transforming an idea into a product. Broadly speaking around one third of chemistry students follow their degree with further learning, with post-graduate research, a teaching qualification or similar. Of these students some will become teachers, other academics, others will work in R&D within industry. Roughly another third will go straight into industry with jobs that require a chemistry degree but are less research orientated. The final third will go into graduate jobs where a degree is needed but the subject is not crucial.

Interestingly we found a lot of overlap in our interests as we talked about our mutual curiosity in trying to understand why students opt for chemistry, why others didn’t, what motivates them, and what they see as the purpose of study and the purpose of a degree. We also talked about the importance of teaching students not just chemistry, but the place of chemistry in the world, and how that might enrich the learning experience. We also had a very brief chat about the chemical collection in the department and floated the idea of creating a project together on this which I will follow up.

In terms of women in science, Samantha had a really interesting perspective on it. Girls now make up 50% of the undergrads in chemistry, the figures are about the same for maths, lower for physics. On the physics point however, tracing back the decision making, this seems to come down to choices made at A-level or earlier. Pretty much all the girls who do A-level physics go on to study physics or engineering or a related discipline at university, so whatever is putting them off is happening at 16 or before. In terms of career development, and we will talk more about this in our next session, Samantha was pretty upbeat about the future. You wouldn’t expect there to be many female professors in chemistry or indeed maths or physics yet, she argued convincingly, since 20-30 years ago there were far fewer women studying these subjects, there is a time lag effect. Although still a male dominated department, it seems from Samantha’s comments and from tangible actions that the department and the faculty are aware of the gender imbalance and taking steps to change. In 2012 the Leeds University Faculty of Mathematics and Physical Sciences was awarded an Athena Swan http://www.athenaswan.org.uk/ silver award. Significantly men as well as women in the department have childcare responsibility and the department is supportive of their needs for flexibility.  The situation is very different in industry Samantha points out, which I think is a point that could be investigated further.

My afternoon of shadowing consisted of a short meeting, where we talked generally about Samantha’s role and what it meant for chemistry students at Leeds. We talked a little about her career so far, though we will talk more about this at our next session. I then followed Samantha to two meetings, one in the maths department (her post is a faculty level, so although she is now based in chemistry she also works with maths and physics), and the other in chemistry. The first meeting, the Staff-Student Forum (SSF), was revealing in the sense that it showcased the kinds of concerns students were having with their teaching. The group was made up of students and teachers; there were 22 attending, 7 men and 15 women. Points were raised on behalf of joint-honours students who felt they were missing out on important skills based courses; another major concern centred on group learning, or more importantly group assessment. While students had expressed an interest in group learning, such was their overwhelming concern with getting good grades, none could countenance the thought of sharing their grade with their fellow students, even when all sorts of checks and balances, used on other courses, were in place to ensure fairness. As we left the meeting, Samantha commented on this, explaining that there was a move to make this obsession with grades even more acute, with the suggested replacement of classes of degree with grade point averages. A better system she suggested, in terms of encouraging a joy of learning, and for students to take risks on their course choices, would be to replace the system with a simple pass / fail. I had never thought of this, and think it is brilliant. It works for drivers licences and PhDs why not degrees too? It made me think too, that how we grade and assess could tell us quite a bit about what we think education is for, and in turn who applies for what, and how they approach and are motivated in their studies.

The second meeting was the Taught Student Education Committee. The meeting was made up, as far as I could tell, of teaching staff and also those (a sub-group of the first?) who deal in other ways with students, those for example in charge of admissions. There also appeared to be at least one student representative. The male to female ratio here was 13 men to 5 women. The meeting was very practical and dealt with specific changes to course structure, the range of student projects offered, particular problems with delivery (there was a discussion relating to teaching worked examples, and its usefulness in showing students what was expected of them in exams). One thing particularly struck me about this meeting, and that was the kindness, and lack of judgement made about the students. There was no talk of the ‘brightest and the best’, there was instead discussion of engaged and unengaged students and the duty and strategies of staff to try to engage those students who were losing their way.

Over all, my impressions were predominantly related to the difference between humanities and science in academia rather than between men and women. Perhaps this is because history of science, at least in my experience, is still very male dominated, but appears less aware of it than this science department. I came away with a strong impression that this was a good place to work as a woman, and I think two things contributed to this: one is the number of men who make use of flexible working for childcare reasons, making this a parent or even mid-career rather than a woman’s ‘problem’; and the second I think is an awareness of an imbalance that needs addressing as expressed though their involvement with Athena Swan. Obviously there are still fewer women in chemistry than men, but I don’t know that professional chemists should take all the responsibility for that. I think our increasingly gendered society, which subtly erodes women’s view of themselves as curious about science, and men’s view of themselves as active participants in running a home, needs to some extent to be held to account.

Dr Emily Winterburn is a visiting fellow in the school of Philosophy, Religion and History of Science (PRHS) at the University of Leeds and currently writing a book on a scientific family called the Herschels.  Previously she worked for many years as a curator of scientific instruments in London and in Leeds. She completed her PhD in 2011, where her research focused on the men and women within a scientific dynasty and their education.