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Scientific outreach

Magalie Quet - 12/11/2019

Shining the spotlight on women in mathematics and IT

© Inria

You might find it surprising for a 17-year-old to decide to spend two days on an intensive course in maths and IT during the school holidays. And yet, that is exactly what twenty female secondary school pupils chose to do, motivated by a shared passion for problem solving. Because, as everyone knows, what could be more fun than maths and IT? 

Iana, Mona, Clovène and Tiphaine are just four out of a group twenty pupils in total, some of whom came from schools in the area, while others came from further afield. Créteil, Tours, girl even came from London, where she is a pupil at Saint Paul’s Girls’ School. Either through their school, their teachers or their parents, all of these pupils caught wind of a 2-day course on maths and IT organised at a research centre for digital science: the Rendez-vous des Jeunes Mathématiciennes et Informaticiennes (RJMI) event, run by the Animath and Femmes et Maths associations.

A packed programme over 2 intense days

For 2 days, these pupils were welcomed in and supported by researchers from the Inria Saclay – Île-de-France research centre, with a solid programme drawn up by Alain Couvreur, the point of contact for scientific outreach. The aims were to deepen school education through the solving of complex problems, to discover new aspects of science, to consider the role played by women in science and to meet female scientists in order to discuss career options and future prospects. 

Deepening the school programme

These 20 pupils were selected for this course not only because of their talent for mathematics and IT, but also because of their curiosity, their passion and their drive to go above and beyond what's asked of them. Totally committed to these disciplines, for some of them it was their second taste of the RJMI event, and they were more than happy when the time came to split up into groups to work on maths and IT problems. 

In total, they spent the best part of 6 hours analysing subjects, deciphering questions and fine-tuning their responses. Although“I don't understand”was a common refrain at the beginning of the workshop, this was quickly replaced by“Ah, yes, if we do it like that, it works!”. PhD students were on hand to provide support, helping to ensure the pupils stayed on the right track. At the end of the course, each group presented their work in front of the rest of the participants, giving them some experience of the daunting task of a timed presentation.

Another way of discovering science

Running parallel to these workshops, the students had the opportunity to take a different approach to science from the one normally taken at school. Three heads of research explained the impact maths and IT have on our daily lives, exploring cryptography, programme verification and the representation of complex data.

During this demonstration, the director of research Ioana Manolescu took the time to encourage these young enthusiasts:“If you're good at IT, you can do anything - IT is everywhere nowadays. When I was 18, I was torn between IT and journalism. In the end I opted for IT, but I’m now able to bring my two passions together through my research into fake news!”

The role played by women in science

Over the course of the 2-day event, one underlying theme of all of the discussions was the role played by women in science and scientific research. Through the involvement of the Animath association, the pupils had the opportunity to take a closer look at the impact stereotypes have on their daily lives.

“The aim of the association is not to guide all young women towards a career in science, but to ensure that all those who are interested in science feel ready to make the leap. Self-doubt is very often the first obstacle teenage girls have to overcome when it comes to accessing scientific education”,explains Elsa Masson from the Animath association.Stereotypes take a long time to die off, which only exacerbates this sense of self-doubt”. 

Whether it’s a poorly shot video advert, a clumsy recruitment campaign or “gendered” day-to-day objects, examples of “ordinary sexism” targeted at women aren’t exactly thin on the ground. Today’s young women need to be made aware of what can influence them, whether directly or indirectly.

Meeting inspirational people

It is often said that younger generations don’t have any female role models in science. And when you think about it, it’s not easy to come up with the names of many female mathematicians or IT specialists when you don’t already work in this environment. Over 2 days, our twenty school pupils met with researchers, teachers, research directors and PhD students - proof, if ever it were needed, that science is not only a man's world.

These meetings resulted in constructive discussions, with helpful advice given out. Marie-Claude Gaudel, emeritus professor at Paris-Sud University, was on hand to dispense some of her wisdom:“It is vital that you do what you love. There’s nothing stopping you from doing what you want to do”. Sylvie Bodo, the centre’s deputy head of science, told them about the time when everything clicked into place for her:“When I was offered a strategic position with a lot of responsibilities, I felt a bit out of my depth. I was really hesitant. In the end, one of my colleagues made me stop and think when they asked me: ‘If you were a man, would you accept this position?’  When I heard that simple question, everything became clear for me. My hesitation vanished, and I went for it”.

Surrounded by passionate scientists, these twenty school pupils, given the opportunity to spend 2 days immersed in digital science, left with an even greater enthusiasm and an even greater curiosity for mathematics and science in general. Mission very much accomplished - it’s just a shame we have to wait so long for the next edition of the RJMI event!

The importance of the RJMI event for Inria

While Inria has always made it a point of principle to raise awareness of digital science among the wider public, scientific outreach is now a vital part of the institute’s strategy for encouraging dialogue between science and society. Initiating this dialogue through direct contact with secondary school pupils, outside of a school context, is one way of stimulating interest in careers in science.

At the Inria Saclay – Île-de-France research centre, when the Animath association suggested organising this RJMI event over 2 days, it was a no-brainer: immersing female secondary school pupils in digital science also helps give a sense of meaning to the research carried out within the centre, while informing their career choices.