Girls Night Out – Engineering the SKA

Girls Night Out photo 2

Today (23:06:15) is National Women in Engineering Day – a good day on which to write about our most recent ‘Girls Night Out’ at Jodrell Bank – which focused on the engineering of the Square Kilometre Array.

The Square Kilometre Array (SKA) will be the world’s largest telescope – an array made up of thousands of dishes spread out in remote areas of South Africa and Australia. It’s a hugely exciting and ambitious project involving 11 ‘member countries’ and over 100 institutions and companies across the world. The SKA has recently decided to base its permanent international HQ at Jodrell Bank.

Here at Jodrell Bank we are keen to support women and girls who are interested in becoming involved with, or finding out about astrophysics (obviously) and any area of physics and engineering. A lot of the staff here at the Discovery Centre are female, and quite a few of us have degrees in Physics and Engineering – and know that there is still some way to go in removing sexism and gender bias across the sector.

One of the things we know is that the culture of the physical sciences and engineering can be quite combative. This is something that is perhaps generated by the (scientific) need to challenge and question any assumption or assertion – but sometimes it can veer into an argumentative atmosphere where banter prevails.

That’s fine for women who like banter, have weathered a few storms and are up for the challenge – but can be off-putting for women (and girls) who have a more exploratory or investigative approach or who are simply not interested in being in a combative environment.

We set up our first Girls Night Out event in 2012 in order to work out ways of creating a ‘woman-friendly flavour’ for an event. We drew on our own personal experiences of being women in Physics and Engineering in order to try to create something that we would have liked to attend ourselves – an event that we would find enjoyable, informative, inspiringand empowering. The events all have roughly the same format : a talk from a female scientist or engineer, a range of ‘activities’, and some refreshment (usually with a ‘science’ theme).

On Saturday (20:06:15) we ran our most recent Girls Night Out in collaboration with the SKA and the Royal Academy of Engineering’s ‘Ingenious’ programme. We had 120 attendees – mostly women and girls, with a few men in the mix too.Girls Night Out photo 5

Our theme this time was the engineering of the SKA – and the wonderful Roshene McCool, SKA ‘Domain Specialist’ in Optic Fibres, gave the talk at the start of the evening.

Our ‘activities’ for the night included a soldering workshop, where all 120 attendees were able to make a badge with a flashing LED. For many people, it was the first time they had used a soldering iron, so it was a great intro to a practical engineering task.

Girls Night Out photo 1


Alongside this, scientists and engineers from the SKA used an origami workshop to engage attendees with the concept of telescope arrays. Everyone made their own model radio telescope dish (there is a ‘cut out’ template here if you’re interested – though we used a slightly different one on the night).

Girls Night Out photo 4

At the end of the evening, our SKA engineering and science colleagues (Maria Grazia Labate and Anna Scaife) organised everyone so that the model dishes (each of which had an ‘integrated’ electric tea light and a handy wooden skewer!) were put into an array on the lawn outside our Space Pavilion. Although this photo is a bit dark, it shows the central ‘core’ of dishes, which the SKA will  use to observe large structures (such as far-away galaxies) in the sky.

Girls Night Out photo 3

The photo also shows the ‘spiral arms’ of SKA dishes spreading out from the core – which are essential when astronomers want to ‘zoom in’ to find the detailed aspects of objects which are very far away.

Maria Grazia and Anna gave some impromptu talks to round off the evening (for me this was the highlight of the whole event) and (it seems) that everyone went home happy.

Girls Night Out photo 6

Blogger: Dr Teresa Anderson MBE is Director of Jodrell Bank Discovery Centre.