Yorkshire academic's drive to increase the number of girls pursuing science

Dr Joanna Rhodes'Photograph: Wakefield Girls' High School
Dr Joanna Rhodes'Photograph: Wakefield Girls' High School

Exploring unexpected and relevant topics can reveal new enthusiasm for science amongst students, according to a Yorkshire academic, who is on a crusade to boost the number of girls pursuing scientific careers.

Dr Joanna Rhodes was a pupil at Wakefield Girls' High School, where she excelled in science and went on to complete a degree and PHD in chemistry at Oxford University.

Surprised at just how male-dominated the subject was, she returned to teach at her former school, where she imparts her knowledge and passion to other students and encourages them to become scientists.

Dr Rhodes, who is assistant head, as well as a chemistry teacher at the school, said: “I have always felt very passionate about encouraging girls to study science. Having done this myself,

I never thought it was something girls wouldn’t do. But when I went to university I found out it was actually very male-dominated. Ever since then I have had a real passion in this area. Girls make amazing scientists.”

In order to achieve her mission, Dr Rhodes has developed a unique teaching style, which sees her incorporate modern culture into her lessons in the hope this will make science more appealing and less daunting to students.

For example, Dr Rhodes, who has written a series of lesson plans for academic publications, has taught pupils the chemistry behind making bubble teas and how science can be used to find alternatives to plastic.

But one of her most popular lessons, which recently attracted the attention of BBC News researchers, explores cosmetics and make-up as useful hooks to get more students into the subject.

She said: “My first job was at Shelley College, a co-educational state school. When I organised activities, it wasn’t attracting many girls and I was really disappointed by this.

Some of the most complex chemistry can be found in the cosmetic industry, as it is manufacturing products that we put on our bodies and skin. These have got to be made using some of the highest quality chemicals and the chemistry behind it is sophisticated and challenging.

“I didn’t want it to be about dumbing down, I wanted it to be a hook. When they came to class, I wanted them to learn some of the most challenging chemistry, but I also wanted to them to find it interesting and exciting.”

The response from the girls was incredible, according to Dr Rhodes, who was delighted to see them queuing out of the door.

“There were girls who you wouldn’t expect would turn up to something science-related who were absolutely brilliant because they were engaged,” she said.

“They had encountered many of the ingredients used in cosmetics on social media and knew what they wanted to include or avoid when they created their own product.

“I thought this is amazing and what chemistry is all about. The fact chemistry means something and is relevant to them is absolutely fantastic and is something I have been doing ever since.”

By making it relevant, Dr Rhodes explained she was able to teach more complex science without overwhelming students.

“I spend my life thinking about how I can make science interesting and accessible because that boosts confidence. You then get more students wanting to take science at A-level and beyond.”