EDUCATION RENAISSANCE / Sparking interest in science among female students
Hiromi Kanekita / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff Writer

This is a translation from The Yomiuri Shimbun’s Education Renaissance series. This new subseries focuses on growing efforts by various sectors to produce and attract “rikejo,” an emerging breed of women seeking to acquire expertise in science, engineering and technology. This apparently reflects Japan’s need to improve its international competitiveness while also trying to further transform the nation into a gender-equal society. The first installment looks at an attempt by the University of Tokyo to draw more rikejo women to its science and engineering faculties.

With a large, explosive sound, a flash of bluish white light went off at a high-voltage lab at the University of Tokyo’s faculty of engineering in Bunkyo Ward, Tokyo. A group of middle and high school girls gazed on, covering their ears with their hands.

The experiment, involving artificially caused lightning, was aimed at teaching the students how to avoid being struck by lightning.

On weekends in October and November last year, the university’s science and engineering faculties and institutes held events aimed at female middle and high school students as well as their parents, to show them how interesting science and engineering can be. The lightning experiment was included in one of the events, called “Kogakubu o nozoite miyo” (Let’s look into the engineering faculty).

Thirty middle and high schools girls and 13 parents participated in the session. They toured labs, observed experiments and chatted with faculty members and female graduate students.

“Today I learned that those subjects are very useful in everyday life,” one parent said after the event. “I really hope my daughter will go in that direction.”

One student said, “I found it easy to take part because there were only girls.”

In June, the university’s Institute of Industrial Science started a program for nurturing next-generation scientists and engineers by instilling in children an interest in science and technology.

Under the program, the university, in tandem with industries, has been sending visiting lecturers to schools. The first session was held in December at Urawa Dai-ichi Joshi High School, an all-girls high school in Saitama. The lecturer the institute sent to the school was a top-notch vehicle specialist.

“There are no engineering classes at high schools, so students don’t have an opportunity to get to know the subject. But we’d like to show them how relevant it is to society,” said Mari Oshima, head of the program. “Girls show interest in life sciences, but not so much in engineering. So we’d like them to be aware that it’s a very important field [of study].”

The education ministry’s fourth Science and Technology Basic Plan, approved in 2011, stipulates a goal of increasing the percentage of women among newly employed science researchers to 25 percent in the short term, and eventually 30 percent.

Also, the Basic Plan for Gender Equality of the Cabinet Office’s Council for Gender Equality, the third of its kind, was approved in 2010 as a basic policy to encourage female students to take subjects in science or engineering fields. Active participation by female researchers is seen as essential for vigorous and varied research activities.

The University of Tokyo also has set a goal of increasing the ratio of female students to 30 percent by 2020. While the percentage of female students at major universities in the world is close to 50 percent, that of the university’s undergraduates is only 19 percent.

According to the university’s Office for Gender Equality, the university started in fiscal 2010 to have female students visit the high schools they graduated from to meet and talk with current students. Last fiscal year the university began holding a welcome party exclusively for new female students.

The Japan Science and Technology Agency, an independent administrative institution in Saitama, offers funding for university projects aimed at encouraging middle and high school girls to study science or engineering.

Through the funding and other sources, the Tokyo University of Science in Shinjuku Ward, Tokyo, started a program in 2008 to hold summer school sessions and events in which children can take part in science experiments at the university’s campuses in Tokyo, Chiba Prefecture and Hokkaido. Also, universities in the Kansai region take turns holding science study events for middle and high school girls.

All of these efforts reflect the determination of universities to attract more female students who wish to major in science or engineering.

(Yomiuri Shimbun, May. 3, 2012)