Making science colourful

Very few young people from ethnic minorities – a significant group in Europe – enter science and technology. The reasons are not hard to understand. But what can be done to change this situation, and to ensure equal opportunities? The European ETHNIC project suggests that this road must start in schools.

In 2006, children of Afro-Caribbean and Asian origin accounted for 21% of the primary school children in the UK, and 17% of secondary school children. Other minorities (principally from Turkey and the Maghreb) are represented in similar proportions in other European countries. They constitute a potential reservoir of human resources that for socio-cultural reasons is all too often excluded from the best schools and higher education. In 2003, the ETHNIC project was set up to encourage these children to take an interest in science and technology, to stimulate greater awareness among their parents and teachers, and in general to awaken the scientific community and the media to the problem. Operating in six countries, the ETHNIC partners have targeted different population groups: Afro-Caribbean children in the UK, Turkish children in Austria, Filipinos and Peruvians in Italy, and the sizeable Roma populations in Hungary, Slovenia and the Czech Republic.

Fighting stereotypes

‘The principal obstacle to the participation of ethnic minorities is the existence of stereotypes that reinforce the perception equating scientist with middle class white man,’ explains Elizabeth Rasekoala, director of the African-Caribbean Network for Science & Technology, a British network closely involved with the project. ‘The language of school books, museums and the media does nothing to highlight the truly universal nature of science. Because of this insidious image, which is also found in the classroom, children from ethnic minorities (and the same is true of girls) simply do not see themselves as future scientists or engineers. In general they suffer from a lack of access to science culture, and from low expectations from their teachers.’ How can this situation be reversed? Through visits to museums and science facilities, discussion and advisory groups, seminars, post-school training activities… Over a period of two years, thousands of youngsters have been introduced to science- and technology-related occupations through more than 130 events. On many occasions, scientists and engineers from various minorities agreed to meet these children, some of whom had limited prospects for the future, and to tell them something of their own story, thus taking on the status of alternative role model.

New initiatives

Based on the information provided by these initiatives, the project team was able to analyse the challenges, and to develop and evaluate methods for improving the situation. The data collected through project questionnaires made it possible to identify the social and cultural obstacles that play a role in holding young people back and turning them away from science. Most of the experiments conducted were widely covered by the national and regional media. ‘It is very important that marginal social groups be a part of socio-economic progress and achieve better social cohesion,’ Miroslav Polzer, director of the Austrian Science and Research Liaison Office (ASO) in Ljubljana, told the BBC. ‘Broadening ethnic minority access to science and technology education is vital for the growth and development of society as a whole.’ Completed in 2005, the ETHNIC project inspired new initiatives in many countries. Meanwhile, the Slovenian and British partners are carrying on with the development of tools, primarily training guides. ‘Increasing the potential of Europe’s human resources in science and technology,’ Elizabeth Rasekoala told the Science & Society Forum organised by the Commission (Brussels, 2005), ‘cannot be done without considering their characteristic diversity. Ethnic minorities constitute a significant proportion of these resources. Society has to take that into account and work out ways to include them.’