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Women in Science Education

1985 – 1995

This essay written by Beverley Bell and Robyn Baker was first published in Women Together: a History of Women's Organisations in New Zealand in 1993.

1985 – 1993

Women in Science Education (WISE) was set up in Wellington in 1985 in response to a growing concern among women science educators, both in New Zealand and internationally, at the low participation rates of girls and women in science education. In the mid-1980s, these concerns led to calls for non-sexist language in classrooms, a curriculum which included — not excluded — girls, making the solving of human problems the basis of science education, professional development for women science teachers, and appropriate career advice for girls.

The women who established the group and put energy into its initial activities were Janet Burns, Robyn Baker, Ann Hodson and Mary Jennings. Their aims were to stimulate continuing debate on girls, women in science and science education; to provide a supportive network for women science teachers and educators; and to encourage more girls and women into science education and scientific careers. It was felt that these aims would not be achieved in the Science Teachers' Association (STA), the only other professional group for science teachers and educators in Wellington at the time. A similar group, EQUALS, was meeting in Auckland, and the Association for Women in Science (later called the New Zealand Association for Women in the Sciences) was also then being established in Wellington.

Membership was open to science teachers and educators at early childhood, primary and secondary level. A few men belonged, but not in a leadership role. In 1992, approximately twenty members regularly attended the Wellington-based meetings. Another 90 members nationally subscribed to the newsletter, which included summaries of talks by guest speakers at recent meetings, new teaching resources, and other information relating to girls and science education.

WISE held evening and day seminars, for example on 'girl friendly' activities for the classroom, feminist science, making invisible women scientists visible, learning science in context, and technology education. Some were held jointly with STA, to ensure that the ideas and debates reached a wider audience.

From time to time the Ministry of Education invited members to be on writing parties for national curricula; in 1989 a small group wrote a resource on New Zealand's pioneer women scientists. [1] Others contributed to teacher development materials, such as the draft in-service guide on girls and science. WISE members also wrote submissions on draft curriculum documents, including the Forms 1–5 science syllabus.

WISE organised career days to inform and encourage secondary school girls interested in career opportunities in science. Members also hosted overseas visitors working in the area of girls and science education; supported each other's research for higher qualifications; and made presentations at 'SCION' — the biennial conference of STA.

From 1985 to 1993, the importance of WISE was threefold. First, it enabled women in science education to value their own knowledge and share their concerns in a supportive network. Secondly, it was an influential curriculum development group that arose from the perceived needs of women, not from central government. Thirdly, it provided a network, through the newsletter, for women science teachers throughout New Zealand.

Beverley Bell and Robyn Baker

1994 – mid-1990s

The Wellington Women in Science Education (WISE) group, like other similar groups around the country, disbanded in the mid-1990s. In 2018, no similar group could be identified.

There were several reasons for this. First, women science educators were involved in the development of the 1993 curriculum and the new NCEA assessment framework. Their input saw key ideas on ways to enable girls into science education being incorporated in this and subsequent curricula. These key ideas included: using learning and teaching activities that enabled the taking into account of the prior knowledge, experiences, aspirations, interests and values of girls in science teaching and learning activities, so that girls could connect the science being learnt to their everyday lives and beyond; science being taught in contexts that girls could relate to; small groups with co-operative team work; learning conversations between teachers and students, not just listening to teacher talk; and a context for science learning as a way to help others and solve problems.

By 2018 these pedagogical ideas were expressed in the science curriculum in generic terms, and intended not just for enabling girls into science education, but for enabling all students, including Māori and Pasifika, through incorporating students’ learning into learning science. The specific contexts, links to prior knowledge and pedagogical practices might be different from those promoted by WISE, but the theorising and rationale for the activities were similar. However, the ‘girls and science’ debates became invisible.

Secondly, WISE members contributed to the redevelopment of the national science teachers’ association into the New Zealand Association of Science Educators, with many becoming office holders. Their thinking and expertise were used to provide professional support to science teachers, at a time when the then new Ministry of Education, after the sweeping 1989 education administration changes, was not providing and managing teacher professional development. Any professional development funding by the Ministry of Education tended to be given to new policy initiatives, with schools being responsible for funding the ongoing professional development of their staff. Hence funding for professional development related to girls and science dropped, and schools tended not to continue this.

Lastly, the mantle of supporting girls into a science career was picked up to varying degrees by scientists’ professional organisations, such as the Association for Women in the Sciences and the Royal Society. In 2018 the science teachers’ own professional group, the New Zealand Association for Science Education, did not have a standing group on girls and science. In 2017 the Royal Society Award, The Prime Minister's Science Teacher Prize, went to Sarah Johns of Nelson College for Girls. Her use of passion projects as a pedagogical practice included many of the ideas related to girls and science that the WISE group was promoting 25 years earlier. [2].

Beverley Bell


[1] Janet Burns, Robyn Baker, Lise Bird, Marion Bogie, Ann Hodson, New Zealand Scientists: Pioneer Women, WISE, Wellington, 1989.

[2], 17.45 minutes onwards, dated July 2018.

Unpublished sources

WISE records and newsletters, 1986–1992, Science Department, Wellington College of Education, Wellington in 1993 [2018 location unknown]