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How can we continue to engage girls in STEM?

By Rose Russell, STEM Co-ordinator at Ursuline Academy and judge for BP Ultimate STEM Challenge

Posted by Rebecca Paddick | March 13, 2017 | Technology

Award-winning technician and STEM co-ordinator Rose Russell has been judging the finalists of BP’s Ultimate STEM Challenge. She explains why enrichment programmes, role models and visibility are all key to boosting girls’ engagement in STEM.

It’s no secret: there are fewer women than men working in STEM industries. Historically, young girls have not been encouraged to pursue these subjects – I know I wasn’t! An unconscious bias that science and maths are ‘typically male’ remains until this day, and these stereotypes hinder girls’ likelihood of pursuing STEM careers.

Anecdotal experience of that bias is backed up by research. The ASPIRES project, a five-year study into students’ science aspirations led by King’s College, reported that, “girls are less likely than boys to aspire to science careers, even though a higher percentage of girls than boys rate science as their favourite subject.” In numbers, 18% of boys aspire to a career in science, compared to 12% of girls.

We also know that the STEM skills crisis among both boys and girls is well-established. Research conducted by King’s College London, the research partner in BP’s Enterprising Science programme, demonstrated that only around 15 percent of school children aspire to be a scientist. With the future beckoning, it’s important to remember that each and every one of us has a responsibility to address the growing need for all students – not just boys – to engage with STEM.

What can we do to prepare young girls for what lies ahead? There’s no simple solution, but I have found a few strategies to be effective:

  • Enrichment programmes
  • Positive female role models
  • Changing perceptions

Enrichment programmes

I was delighted to be asked to act as a teacher judge for the final of BP’s Ultimate STEM Challenge. The competition is a fantastic way of encouraging young girls and boys to better understand the broad range of STEM careers while demonstrating how STEM impacts our world.

We need to immerse girls in interesting STEM projects, allowing them to design and physically create anything they want using exciting new tools like laser cutters and 3D printers. That means creating an environment full of opportunities for girls to use their creativity and practical problem-solving. I know from experience that seeing problems as opportunities and mistakes as progress can be particularly appealing for girls.

I also believe that we need to start building interest in STEM subjects from a much younger age – as soon as they can talk, in fact. There’s a window of opportunity during early years where girls are open to the idea that they can enjoy and do well in both maths and science. By the time they get to secondary school, that unconscious bias is more likely to have set in.

Positive female role models

In 2015 I took part in Crossrail’s excellent teacher placement programme, STEM Insight. It helped me to realise that every leading business is in a position to maximise its experience when engaging young people in STEM careers. Most opportunities in the industry come up from a conversation or a chance meeting. You’ll usually need established relationships to get a recommendation or to find out about STEM workshops local to you. So the best advice I could give young girls is to make use of connections and take any opportunity as a springboard.

With that in mind, I have used my connections at Crossrail to bring in female engineers for talks about their profession. Helen Macadam, a civil engineer with Skanska, was our first guest and she definitely made an impact by inspiring many of our girls to understand civil engineering in more detail and consider it with more depth. This year we also have Fatima Alghali, Crossrail’s 400th apprentice and a trainee quantity surveyor, and Kate Keller, the only female crawler crane driver at Crossrail.



During National Careers & Apprenticeships Week (6-10 March), we were busy with plans to create an environment in which young people can picture their future selves in STEM. As well as staging our first Careers Day for Year 9, we marked International Women’s Day (8 March) with a screening of Eat. Sleep. STEM. Repeat, the documentary film from the Outbox Incubator programme. This pioneering six-week STEM initiative, developed by Stemettes for talented girls aged 11-22, took place in the summer of 2015, when 6 of our pupils at Ursuline Academy took part. The approach outlined by the programme and film has helped to encourage female participation in STEM. 

Changing perceptions

How can we change perceptions against a backdrop of old-fashioned sexism, a lack of role models and outdated stereotypes? You may see more women on construction sites over time, but we need faster progression and that can’t be done overnight. One thing we must do is update our views and commit ourselves to changing those preconceptions which can be found hidden in our everyday language.

It’s also critical that we are more entrepreneurial in our approach to providing face-to-face interactions with positive role models. Alongside ongoing encouragement and support, this is proven to have the greatest impact. Similarly, we need to see more accomplished female engineers represented in the media.

Sometimes it only takes one opportune moment or emotional connection to change somebody’s outlook. For example, the Stemettes recently gifted 15 free tickets for students to see the film Hidden Figures, a film inspired by the story of female African-American mathematicians working at NASA during the space race. The screening was followed by a Q&A with inspirational female mathematicians and each student took home a free book.

The girls left unanimously inspired by Hidden Figures – a remarkable story, beautifully told, with proper female leads. And, for us as teachers, a remarkably effective way of switching their minds onto STEM. My message to girls hesitant about studying STEM, and teachers urging their girls to consider STEM, would be this – let’s make sure there are no more hidden figures!***

 


The BP Ultimate STEM Challenge final took place at the Science Museum in London during British Science Week (10-19 March). Find out who the winners are at www.bp.com/ultimatestemchallenge

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