Athene Donald to call for science and maths study for all post-16

4 September 2015

Award-winning physicist Professor Dame Athene Donald is to call for all young people to study science and maths up to the age of 18 and for an end to gender stereotyping as well as to the “science versus arts” divide in education when she gives her inaugural presidential address at the British Science Festival in Bradford on 10 September.

Professor Dame Athene Donald

Speaking ahead of the festival, where she will begin her year-long presidency of the British Science Association, Prof. Donald said the UK was unique in requiring children to make choices at around the age of 14 that would affect the rest of their careers. In most other countries children were not allowed to give up maths until they left school or to narrow their choices in the way that the A-level system requires, she said.

The Royal Society (RS) had been calling for a shift to a Baccalaureate-type system to replace A-levels for some years but had been ignored, she said. Prof. Donald, a former chair of the RS’s education committee, said we seemed to want to divide people into “sheep and goats, science and arts people”, while gender stereotyping of children seemed to start incredibly early. “I know there are people who think that what children do at age four is irrelevant to their A-level choices, but I’m not so sure,” she said.

All children needed to be offered a wide range of opportunities to decide what really interested them, she said. “It isn’t just girls that these actions may affect. We should note that boys are discouraged from other disciplines as Institute of Physics studies have shown.”

The UK was not producing enough 18-year-olds and graduates with skills in STEM subjects, and ensuring that half the population was not put off studying them because of their gender would be one easy way to address this, she said.

More and more people needed to use numeracy and modelling and be comfortable with analytical thinking, and a much larger number needed to be comfortable about science because it was integral to all our lives, she argued. “Having an attitude that [science] is all nasty, scary and dangerous stuff is enormously unhelpful if not positively dangerous,” she said.

The IOP is sponsoring her talk and Prof. Donald is an honorary fellow of the IOP, but the views expressed will be her own.

A number of physics-based talks and workshops will be held during the festival, which is on 7-10 September. The IOP will be holding an event, “Light: shaping the future”, at the festival at 11am on 10 September in celebration of the International Year of Light. Speakers will describe some of the ways that light is being used in communication, medicine and research.

Lewis Dartnell, who is to give an IOP public lecture in October, will be speaking on 10 September about the subject of his book The Knowledge, on the essential science and technology needed to rebuild civilisation from scratch.