Girls and engineering and other STEM subjects
– Olivera Raraty, Headmistress of Malvern St James Girls’ School
According to Dame Professor Ann Dowling, President of the Royal Academy of Engineering, UK plc has a major skills shortage – by 2022 we will need at least 1.82 million new engineering, science and technology professionals. And what about women? Currently women make up less than 15% of engineering graduates, under 5% of engineering apprenticeships and only 7% for those professionally registered in engineering employment. These are sobering statistics, and it is clear that something needs to be done to make STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) degrees and careers more appealing to females.
As Headmistress of an all-girls’ boarding school, this is something I care passionately about. I want to make sure that our pupils explore STEM subjects fully and realise that STEM is creative and compelling, and can be a superb career path. Women such as Roma Agrawal, one of the structural engineers who built The Shard, bear witness to these creative possibilities. I am pleased to say that we have more girls studying STEM subjects at A level, and more girls going on to read STEM at university, than ever before. Engineering, mechanical engineering, biochemical engineering, aviation engineering, mathematical science, computer science and architecture are all choices that recent leavers have made. Nationally numbers are picking up in the independent sector, and the Government has launched an initiative to increase girls’ engagement in the maintained sector.
It could be argued that in a girls’ school, switching female pupils on to STEM subjects is easier because there is no gender stereotyping, and science is not seen as the preserve of men. Younger girls see the older ones as STEM subject mentors, setting up STEM-related clubs and societies, and participating in national STEM challenges and olympiads. All of this creates a ‘can-do’ attitude towards the sciences, but there is more to it than that.
The key I believe is to start girls young, to teach creatively and to ensure that there are plentiful enrichment opportunities where girls get to apply their knowledge in ‘real-world’ situations. So, for example, we have recently enjoyed workshops from the Royal Society of Chemistry’s Spectroscopy in a Suitcase team, and have been inspired about artificial intelligence by a young alumna who has started her own business in this sector. Young Enterprise is another platform for our budding STEM students and entrepreneurs of the future, who are required to design a product and packaging, create a business plan and bring their product ‘to market’.
Ideas like these provide excellent platforms for building pupils’ self-confidence and know-how through hands-on applications. Although guided by teachers and professional mentors, the idea is to give pupils the independence to work things out for themselves.
Engaging children early
It is said that children are naturally mini-engineers. They are strong on creative problem solving, building and tinkering, but formal classroom education doesn’t allow them the scope to make the most of their natural attributes. It is important for schools to aim to preserve this natural curiosity by engaging children early. Much of the work done at senior level can be translated, with a few tweaks, to younger girls. Our prep girls (aged 4 to 11) have done a Mini Young Enterprise challenge, as well enjoying a STEM club where they have programmed robots and created circuits to light up a doll’s house. They take part in the National Science and Engineering Week, where the whole school goes off curriculum to enjoy interactive workshops and all kinds of hands-on scientific challenges.
Girls should not feel put off by the fact that the STEM careers landscape is so sparsely populated by women. We use appropriate alumnae as STEM ambassadors and evidence of where a STEM career can take you. Most recently Dr Caroline Copeland, a neuroscientist at Imperial College, London, came back to school to champion a career in science. This kind of insight into what a STEM career involves is hard for teachers to replicate.
We have also forged links with local engineering companies to provide work placements for girls in Year 11 and above to see STEM in action. Most companies are keen to offer placements to girls in particular as they are acutely aware of the need to attract more women into their workplace.
Whether it’s cybersecurity tasters at GCHQ, Blue Fusion days at IBM, or Chemistry Days at Warwick University, up and down the country there are many opportunities for pupils to get the whole STEM experience, and for girls to see other girls participating.
I firmly believe that, even in my generation, we will witness a sea change in the number of women opting for a life in engineering and STEM. This is great news: having more of the best minds in the sector will ultimately benefit us all.
Olivera Raraty became Headmistress of Malvern St James Girls’ School in September 2016. Previously she was Deputy Head (Academic) at Notting Hill and Ealing High School in London and enjoyed a long career at Wycombe Abbey School as Head of History and Politics and Assistant Director of Studies.