NRF-iThemba LABS Uses the World of Particle Physics to Excite the Next Generation of Women and Girls in Science

NRF-iThemba LABS Uses the World of Particle Physics to Excite the Next Generation of Women and Girls in Science

UNESCO states that “…although Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) fields are widely regarded as critical to national economies, so far most countries, no matter their level of development, have not achieved gender equality in STEM.” The International Day of Women and Girls in Science, observed annually on 11 February, is crucial to raise awareness of the critical role of women and girls in the science system.

NRF-iThemba LABS used this day to raise awareness of some of their female researchers while also engaging future female STEM players. They also invited the news channel, eNCA, to speak to some of their researchers about their work at the facility. The insert, which aired on Saturday 10 February , can be watched here.

“In celebrating this day, we had to make sure that we not only acknowledge our remarkable researchers and scientists but that we also use this opportunity to reach out to the younger generation of women teaching them the importance of STEM in society,” said NRF-iThemba LABS Communications and Stakeholder Relations Manager, Dr Gillian Arendse. “There has been tremendous progress made towards increasing the participation of women in STEM, but they are still under-represented in these fields and we need to do more.”

In celebration of Women and Girls in Science, NRF-iThemba LABS hosted 38 girl learners from 19 high schools at its Cape Town facility on Friday, 09 February 2024. The young women engaged in several activities in addition to being privileged with lectures from experts in the STEM field.

The activities that the young scholars participated in were linked to the Strangeness Enhancement studies with CERN’s A Large Ion Collider Experiment (ALICE). Introductory lectures were facilitated by Prof Zinhle Buthelezi and Dr Siegfried Fortsch, who are part of the ALICE collaboration under the auspices of the SA-CERN programme. The hands-on activities were facilitated with assistance from postgraduate students.

The introductory lectures created an opportunity for the learners to add questions to a “Huh-board” during short breaks. This was used to encourage participation as they were broke through their confidence issues. Some of the questions posed included:

  • WHY can we NOT pull a quark out of a proton?
  • WHY do scientists want to pull quarks out of protons/neutrons?
  • Do scientists KNOW what the STRANGE quark looks like?
  • If the “bonds” didn’t break, would we still be able to produce a QGP?
  • After the decay has been observed inside the detector, what happens to the particles?
  • How does the conservation of invariant mass relate to the concept of mass-energy-equivalence?
  • Can you explain the concept of colour screening and its role in the presence of the QGP?
  • You said the protons become heavier as they are moving faster. Is this needed to produce MORE particles, or is there something that I am missing?

NRF-iThemba LABS used the unifying force of science to create a space of deep learning and to forge of new friendships.

In addition, NRF-iThemba LABS has run a social media campaign which profiles a number of their female researchers, including Dr Ntombizonke Kweswa, Dr Zina Ndabeni, Xanthene Muller, Dr Nametso Mongwaketsi and Dr Julie Bolcaen.

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