Abdullahi Farah and John Bradford on a new initiative
Earlier this year, a diverse group of around 60 gathered to discuss the aspirations and attainment opportunities in the sciences for their young people, especially those from the Somali community.
In less than 12 years, this community in Bristol has grown rapidly to over 10,000 people, with a high proportion of young families. They have tended to settle in the more deprived areas of Bristol where most schools are struggling to raise children’s achievements.
A distinguishing feature of this community is that most have not arrived directly from Somalia but have travelled via other countries. This means that most Bristol Somalis are at least bilingual, and many are fluent in more than one language. Despite these apparent language skills, integration in the education system is a challenge and a lack of aspiration in the sciences in particular is of concern to community leaders.
Following an overture from the British Council, a proposal was quickly developed between the Somali Resource Centre and the Bristol & Bath Branch of the British Science Association. While a café scientifique has a key presenter and informal question and answer, we chose the world café model as it suited our needs better. It uses a facilitator to pose key questions for the attendees to consider between themselves, and then coordinate everyone changing places between questions. A key aim for the evening was to encourage mixing and dialogue between attendees.
Our aim was for a roughly even balance across as many demographic measures as possible. In the end we achieved near parity between ethnicities, ages, gender, level of education, and so on.
It was a truly diverse gathering.During the evening, the participants considered questions such as ‘Is science important? Why/why not?’ and ‘How can we encourage (young Somali) people to participate in science?’
The Somali parents were very conscious of the importance of education for their children; however, they are facing language and cultural barriers which limit their ability to help their children make right choices. A lack of understanding of the British educational system and parental involvement in children’s education were also factors that may contribute to the Somali pupils’ lack of interest in science subjects at schools. The lack of visible role models within the community was also suggested as a challenge to enthusing younger Somalis into the sciences.
Perhaps the most immediate and beneficial result from the event was the offer from a Somali biochemist who had attended the event and wanted to join the Bristol & Bath Branch Committee of the British Science Association. This was taken up in May, when we formally welcomed Abdi to the Committee. We have begun planning an autumn event schedule to help raise awareness of the educational system and facilitate more role models in working with both schools and young people. This will tie in very naturally with the STEMNET programme and further the community links across our city.
Longer-term plans are being developed to launch a science café with the community. This will link with existing science cafés in Bristol and Bath and with the four universities in the area. It will also provide the parents of young Somalis with a wider appreciation of the career paths that science can enable.
The world café was the first event of its kind and it exceeded our expectations. More people attended than we expected and conducted constructive discussion about the benefits of science. We were not expecting to change people’s view of science in one event, but to start the debate and to continue organising similar events in different settings.