Science interests girls as much as boys

Girls are just as interested in science and technology as boys are, according to researchers Anders Jidesjö and Åsa Danielsson.

Flickor utforskar sin omvärldA few minutes with Anders Jidesjö, assistant lecturer at the Department of Thematic Studies - Environmental Change, and head of research for international studies on pupils' interest in and attitudes to science and technology. In your research you show that school tends to kill the natural interest that boys and girls have in science and technology.
"It has long been said that children and young people are not interested in the sciences. But that's not true. By nature they're extremely interested in these subjects. But when they reach secondary school age, it all collapses – in school. Not outside school; they're still interested there. So it's the school system that has a problem that has to be solved. It seems as if the school system extinguishes their interest."

In a recent study, you and your research colleague Åsa Danielsson show that girls and boys are interested in different aspects of science and technology. Your results also show that overall, girls are just as interested as boys.
Anders Jidesjö Forskare Tema Miljöförändring"Yes. The study shows that what young people experience as they grow up is linked to specific areas of interest within science and technology. These experiences play a part in how they learn. It's often said that boys are more interested in science and technology. But it depends on how the questions are asked. In this study we asked 800 15- and 16-year-olds about their interest in science and technology, and linked the responses to their experiences of the two fields in their spare time. Then we compared the boys' and the girls' responses. The results show that in many respects, the girls are more interested in science and technology than the boys, but from different points of view."

Could you give a few examples?
"Traditionally, questions in studies like these are about the pupils' interest in the subjects per se, such as physics and chemistry. Instead, we focussed the questions on the contents of the subjects, which yielded completely different responses. The questions could concern things like weather and astronomy, war and weapons, or the technology we use on a daily basis. As well as the human body, health and beauty, or agriculture and ecology – topics that interest girls more than boys. Whatever field you look at, it contains a huge number of science- and tech-related content. The human body, health and beauty, for instance, relate to questions about everything from the effects of alcohol on the body to the ingredients of makeup and shampoo. That is, the girls are interested, but previously the questions weren't asked the right way."

What are the consequences of this?
"We can predict that girls are disadvantaged in science and technology instruction. There's a risk that the school system does more harm than good, if the teachers don't get appropriate further training. To get more children to choose science and technology, we have to seize upon their interest in elementary school. This also applies to some of the boys, who lose interest along the way for the same reasons. Otherwise we're just preaching to the converted. These days we know a good deal about how to teach science and technology, to increase the sense that they are meaningful and relevant. For this reason it's important to get teachers involved in strategies to improve how pupils learn."

You're an adviser in education-related issues, and in a few days you're speaking at the centenary of the Royal Swedish Academy of Engineering Sciences. What is your most important message?
"I'm going to talk about how we should work with future generations in their learning, so they feel that it is meaningful and relevant, and so the pupils feel they are learning important things in their education. What should we focus on, to make sure that education keeps up with the times? My feeling is that linking it to commonplace social phenomena is part of the answer."

Photo: iStockphoto and Linköping University