The wisest way to get women into science

If you can’t find Margaret-Ann Armour in her office at the University of Alberta, you might very well find her in a school classroom surrounded by kids.

If you can’t find Margaret-Ann Armour in her office at the University of Alberta, you might very well find her in a school classroom surrounded by kids.

Take March 13th as an example. That’s when she spent the day at Windsor Park School in Edmonton showing Grade 3 and 5 students how to make nylon.

“One of the great joys of my life has been going out to schools and having fun with chemistry,” she says.

“That means I can take all sorts of colourful demonstrations that I can get the children involved in as well. They get quite excited when, out of a beaker, you can pull a thread of nylon.”

Even I learned a thing or two listening to this amazing professor explain the chemical reaction that produces polymerization.

“We talk about the fact that nylon is made from two small molecules. And these two small molecules are in some way like people. They’ve got two arms. That means they can all join up together in a long line. And, of course, I always have the children join up.

“Nylon in chemical terms is called a polymer. And that just means that it is ‘many molecules.’ We have such fun. I tell the children when they are all joined up with their hands that now they are ‘poly-people.’ They remember that and so they’ve got the idea of the many molecules and this long chain which is why you get a thread of nylon.”

Aside from her love of chemistry and of teaching, Armour understands completely that if we want to encourage more young people to go into the sciences, then we have to get them excited about it first and foremost. It’s vital to help students see the applications of science, the relevance to their lives, rather than boring them first with theory.

It’s a principle that underlies Armour’s second passion in life: encouraging young women to become scientists.

Aside from her academic career where she became an expert in the chemistry of hazardous waste disposal, Armour is probably best known for her work over the last 25 years with WISEST – Women in Scholarship, Engineering, Science and Technology.

It was actually the brainchild of Gordon Caplan, a former VP of Research at the University of Alberta.

He enlisted Armour, then a professor of chemistry, as one of the founding members of the group which he tasked with figuring out what the barriers were to young women going into science and engineering, and then more importantly, to take action .

A quarter of a century later, Armour has several awards recognizing her achievements in this endeavour, including the Order of Canada.

When asked what stands out about WISEST, she replies, “More and more, I’m beginning to discover what influence the programs that we’ve put in place have. And, if anyone had asked me when we started some of them, I would have been surprised.”

She points to the WISEST Summer Research Program for girls in Grade 11. They spend six weeks working on serious research projects.

When Armour and her colleagues wanted to determine what effect this six week program might have, they designed an experiment of their own. Out of the top 150 student applicants who applied for the program in 1994, out of the top 150 applicants, 50 were assigned to the full six-week program, 50 had one day on campus, and 50 had nothing. Then the WISEST committee followed the progress of the careers of the three cohorts.

“We discovered – after following them as long as we could for 10 years – that the commitment of the women who had spent the six weeks at the University of Alberta was considerably stronger to the sciences and engineering than it was in the other groups. One of the things we had to recognize was that all the young women who apply for the WISEST Summer Research Program do so because they are interested in science in the first place. But particularly the numbers who went on and did a PhD or a post doc . . . what really came through was this commitment.”

Armour is excited about the new national role that WISEST is taking on. The group has been a member of the Canadian Coalition of Women in Science, Engineering, Trades and Technology for 20 years.

Now, with some financial help from the Alberta government, Edmonton will become the headquarters for a new national centre dedicated to improving the access of women to these non-traditional fields.

“That means we have a national group that can pull together data which can help support the groups at the local level which can add value to what they are doing. It will really be a virtual centre. So, when a workshop needs to be done, we’ll be looking for a group in the area of the workshop that might be prepared to take it on . . . It will be a small, ongoing staff and eventually small, satellite offices across the country.”

Cheryl Croucher writes for the Troy Media Corporation.

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