Science pioneers go back to school

Alton Convent School in Hampshire has welcomed two leading female STEM ambassadors to its new school laboratories

Alton Convent School played host to two leading lights from the worlds of science and engineering. Internationally renowned astrophysicist Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell FRS, FRAS delivered a keynote during the day, addressing over one hundred pupils from year 10 to the sixth form. Dame Jocelyn was joined by Dawn Bonfield, president of the Women’s Engineering Society (WES), in providing hands-on advice during a physics extension lesson. These ambassadors are patrons of science and engineering at the school. During the visit Dawn Bonfield also launched the steering group for WES’ new SPARKS ( programme, with five pupils from year 9 to the sixth form playing a pivotal role. The project is seeking to address the STEM opt-out rate for girls during the critical teenage years through a targeted stream of communication.

Don Johnson, operations director and University of Bath placement student, and Sophie Williams from Alton-based Laleham Health and Beauty also visited. Don and Sophie shared their insights into innovation and new product development with nine year 10 pupils. The girls are embarking on a STEM project, which will engage with sister schools in India, Colombia and Germany.

On the same day pupils from 3 to 11 years old explored Dr Mike Leahy’s Zoo Bus, with snakes, tarantulas and more.

Alton Convent demonstrated its commitment to STEM when fundraising to upgrade the science laboratories last year; the school also launched the National Schools Outreach Programme for WES, in which pupils from two local secondary schools also participated.

The new laboratories opened in September 2014, and the school is collaborating with five local schools and a number of local science and engineering businesses, such as Laleham Health and Beauty, in line with the objectives of the government’s ‘Your Life’ programme.

The school is currently reviewing its STEM outreach programmes, working with the Women’s Engineering Society and ambassadors from the Institution of Mechanical Engineers. The most recent research indicates that in an engineering and technology context, females are typically more interested in the bigger picture, the environmental and social benefits along with ethics and interaction with people. Furthermore the application of engineering to design, medicine, sports, information, environment and agriculture has been revealed to be particularly appealing to females.

Alton Convent will be inviting aspiring female scientists from two local schools to participate in ‘SET for Sport’ on 16 March. This is a one-day initiative developed by Portia Ltd, which looks at STEM across a multitude of sporting contexts.

Industry research also reveals that information on engineering career pathways should be introduced at primary age and repeated regularly throughout the school lifetime. The ‘leaky pipeline’ of engineering talent is most pronounced at 16 but the decision has typically been taken at 14. By omitting maths, or physics as a choice at A-level, pupils are significantly narrowing their career options.

As a result of the current and forecast shortfall of engineers in the UK, there is a plethora of programmes available to provide hands-on engineering experiences for schoolchildren. It is important that such activities are not one-hit wonders and form part of an ongoing STEM programme, both within an individual school and its wider community. Community links with local schools and businesses are pivotal to bringing engineering to life, creating opportunities for work experience, collaborative projects, site visits, role models and mentors.

Education and awareness of opportunities is also fundamental within the parent community who are seen as the key influencers for career paths amongst teenage children. This is directly impacted by their ‘science capital’ – i.e. their own science qualifications or those of members of their family.

Dame Louise Makin, MA, PhD (Cantab), MBA, DBE, CEO of BTG Group will be speaking to parents at Alton Convent on 16 March, as will Maggie Philbin CEO of Teen Tech.

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