Work experience in digital agriculture for middle school girls

For five days, from 17 to 21 December 2018, #DigitAg member teams welcomed five middle school girls from the Françoise Combes school in Montpellier for work experience in the world of digital agricultural research. The goal of this action was to use the Year 10 work placement to show these young girls all the possibilities of hard science and digital technology, while they are thinking about which educational path to take. “Go for hard science!” is the message, as women are still under-represented in these sectors. Digital agriculture, where these disciplines are very present, is an ideal setting for finding out about research careers and areas, thanks to the involvement of numerous teams from Irstea, Inra, Cirad, Inria, the University of Montpellier and Montpellier SupAgro.

Priority to digital technology and innovation starts in middle school

The Cité Scolaire Françoise Combes, a general and technical middle and high school in Montpellier, is named after a renowned (female[a1] ) professor of astrophysics.

Anne Mayard, the head teacher of the school, stresses the importance of digital technology and innovation in the priorities of her educational project. “This partnership also ties in perfectly with the school’s Future Pathway programme, which supports all pupils in the development of their personal educational pathway plan, highlighting the emergence of ambition in little-known but promising fields of work”, she says.

This action stems from the Strategic Council’s desire to give young children a taste for “hard” science, computer science as well as mathematics and physics, driven by Anne-Lucie Wack, a member of the “Femmes et Sciences” association (Women and Science). “Things are improving, but we can still do better! A good example is in higher education: 10 years ago, the AgroTIC course had only one girl for every 10 engineering students, but the figures are more balanced now. These are agronomists who acquire a dual qualification in the hard sciences. But more still needs to be done to balance the cohorts. In research, there are also women in these sectors, but things are more complicated in business, where there are not enough women,” says Véronique Bellon-Maurel.

Into labs

Amel, Chavéti, Adelina, Louhanne and Sara found out about this world through presentations of AgTech projects, but also workshops and demonstrations in which they took part. The programme covered the wide range of fields of application: “What is precision farming?”, “Drone mounted sensors to assist the creation of apple varieties adapted to climate change”, “What are data mining, learning and artificial intelligence?”, “What should be done with all the data collected and the research results? For example, visualising thesis data on African swine fever”, “Watching plants breathe with hyperspectral imaging”, “How to protect cultivated plants without using pesticides”, “What is the purpose of an information system for high-throughput phenotyping of plants?, “Satellite images: how do we obtain them? What do we do with them?”, “Producing a land use map in Senegal”, “How do we know which digital tools will be useful to farmers?” etc.

Throughout the week, the girls also looked at what happens behind the scenes of an experiment, through a research topic devised by Véronique Bellon-Maurel (Irstea & #DigitAg), Pierre Joram (GreenHouse Keeper startup) and Maxime Ryckwaert (Irstea-Limagrain doctoral student): how do we design an experimental plan? How do we follow it? What results do we obtain? Specifically, the girls monitored and analysed the growth of cultivated plants in a connected greenhouse.

The role-play “Boîte à Métiers Recherche” de Science Animation, career meetings with women specialising in these sciences and technologies, and representatives of support professions showed them all the job possibilities open to them in this field.

Let’s debrief!

I thought it was secret, that we wouldn’t go into the labs and would just look at plants

I loved “travelling” from laboratory to laboratory and discovering new experiments

I liked finding out about sensors, which I knew nothing about, and the satellite antenna

I was amazed by the amount of data collected per second!

We had to use our heads, and that was great

I love mapping plant growth

These jobs require a lot of responsibility and experience

I’d like to meet other female doctoral students

I liked… flying a drone, role-playing to find out about jobs and the Agro chess game!

Amel, Chavéti, Adelina, Louhanne and Sara were very positive about their week, giving it top marks. Their perception of the world of research and their feelings about jobs evolved between the beginning and the end of the week. They discovered a taste for experimentation and transmission, as well as an interest in certain disciplines or jobs. We may be looking at future electronics engineers, computer scientists and data managers, or perhaps agronomists, researchers and lecturers. Once back in the classroom, they will tell their classmates and teachers about their experience during time set aside for discussions.

New prospects

This action will be repeated next year and new ideas for scientific mediation are emerging, which will be addressed by the Strategic Council. “The decision to introduce “Digital technology and computer science” into high school programmes is a good thing. In the future, we might consider offering work placements to high school girls”, says Véronique Bellon-Maurel. “Over and above nurturing interest in these careers within a group hosted every year by #DigitAg, another goal is to encourage other actors in this sector to also offer work experience to girls”.

Contact Communication officers: Carole Giansily, #DigitAg – Colette Fatou, Irstea – Christine Riou, Inra – Béatrice Louvet-Bacle, Cirad – Virginie Fèche, Univ. Montpellier-Inria (Lirmm) – Ghyslaine Besançon (Montpellier SupAgro)