Tackling the gender imbalance in STEM

Keri Beckingham finds out how today’s independent schools are engaging female pupils with STEM

Today’s technology-driven world has meant the way in which we live, work and learn has changed. However, there are concerns that the economy is struggling to keep up with these developments, with a 2018 report by STEM Learning finding that the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) skills gap is costing the UK economy £1.5bn a year.

Jade Parkinson-Hill is the founder of Steam School, which is on a mission to connect thousands of students across the globe with STEAM (the added A standing for Arts) innovators and inspire them to create positive global change with science and technology. Discussing the way that education providers are looking to overcome this problem and equip the future workforce with the skills that they’ll need, she says: “Here in the UK, the private sector, universities and education services, like Steam School, are working together to address this skills gap.

“There is an abundance of STEM toys, curricula, events in museums, after-school programmes and corporate sponsored competitions to inspire, inform and help young people to develop the skills that they need to access careers in STEM.”

You might also like: Inspirational women in STEM… Ruth Faherty

At Aldenham School in Hertfordshire, one female Year 12 pupil recently secured a three-week work experience placement at a major construction and architecture firm as part of the school’s collaboration with industry through Class of Your Own’s Design…Engineer… Construct! (DEC) learning programme. Commenting further on the STEM skills gap and the issues of gender inequality within the industry, Andrew Williams, headmaster, says: “The government is calling for greater emphasis on STEM subjects within schools. 

“They want to see more homegrown engineers, with a focus on improving the gender imbalance that currently exists in the industry, which has in the past been predominantly male.”

Philip Stewart is the headmaster of Terra Nova School in Cheshire, where all pupils are encouraged to undertake engineering challenges as part of their design technology curriculum. He believes that whilst the ever-changing STEM landscape is challenging for schools, students are undoubtedly benefiting as it becomes a key element of the curriculum. 

They want to see more homegrown engineers, with a focus on improving the gender imbalance that currently exists in the industry, which has in the past been predominantly male

He adds: “STEM is a high agenda item and one you will now often find prospective parents asking about.

“One big change in the very best schools is that STEM is changing from a token ‘day’ or ‘club’ to a mindset that is embedded in a wide range of subjects.”

Girls in STEM

With the STEM landscape changing, are more female pupils engaged in STEM subjects today than they were 10 years ago, and what are the main reasons for this?

Kat Boyland, head of DT and STEAM at Terra Nova School thinks that there definitely are, and attributes this to the new curriculum having a multi-substrate approach, allowing projects to be directed into personal interest areas and gender stereotypes being reduced.

She said: “There is no doubt that schools are also focusing their attentions on developing girls in a range of STEM subjects. Leadership teams, alongside their curriculum teams, are focusing on making the STEM subjects more appealing to girls.”

Aldenham School has also seen an increase in the number of female students taking STEM subjects in recent years, particularly across design technology subjects. Commenting further, Williams said: “According to a study by Wise Campaign, women amount to 23% of the core STEM workforce now – still lower than we would like to see, but higher than it has been previously.”

Last year, 70% of students at Moreton Hall for girls took at least one STEM A-level

Parkinson-Hill also agrees that more work still needs to be done by schools to encourage female students to study STEM subjects, in terms of explaining what it means to work in these sectors. She said: “A-level computing saw the biggest popularity jump in entrants last academic year, rising by 23.9%. However, a staggering 88% of all students were male – meaning only 12% of computing students were female. We need to demystify what it means to work in STEM sectors and help young people to ‘connect the dots’.”

Inspiring the next generation

In 2018, 55% of all A-levels achieved at St Swithun’s School for girls in Hampshire were in STEM subjects, with 15% of leavers choosing to study medicine at university and a further 13% opting for engineering courses. In addition, 73% of the school’s current sixth formers are studying at least one STEM subject at A-level.

As Suzanna Wilkinson, head of science explains, a key goal for teaching staff in the science department is to inspire the next generation of STEM professionals. To do this, they aim to nurture a natural interest in the subject through a range of field trips, visits to lectures and themed activities such as a recent forensic studies day. 

She explains: “The over-arching philosophy is one of helping students to think about science in a real-world context, to problem-solve, to question and to find evidence. Through challenging discussion and healthy debate, students develop intellectual confidence and genuine appreciation for the role of science in their lives.”

Last year, 70% of students at Moreton Hall School for girls in Shropshire took at least one STEM A-level, 38% took two or more, 22% took three or more and 6% took four. Further mathematics was also a particularly successful subject for the school, with 16 students out of the sixth form’s total of 125 choosing to study the subject, compared to the national average of just 16 girls out of every thousand.

Caroline Lang, senior sixth form tutor is in no doubt that this success is as a result of the school’s single-sex learning environment. She says: “The confidence gained from the ‘safe’ single-sex learning environment is hugely beneficial: there is much anecdotal evidence that many of the women who have made it to the top of their STEM fields cite their single-sex education as of significant benefit in their development and evolution.”

Girls can tend to exhibit perfectionist tendencies and worry about getting things ‘wrong’, and this is actively challenged in DT and STEM (STEAM) at Terra Nova

At Terra Nova School, Philip Stewart believes the key to STEM engagement is to surround female pupils with positive images of women in STEM, in order to encourage them to challenge negative stereotyping and teach them to ‘fail fast’. An example of this is where the school encouraged female members of their parent body who are involved in STEM careers to talk with students in support of International Women’s Day. Explaining this idea further, he said: “Girls can tend to exhibit perfectionist tendencies and worry about getting things ‘wrong’, and this is actively challenged in DT and STEM (STEAM) at Terra Nova. 

“Failure is not seen as a negative, we fail fast but learn fast. Students are introduced to the idea that nothing is ‘wrong’ in DT, but that we should evaluate, think and challenge the accepted version of what is ‘right’.” 

Andrew Williams believes that it’s important not to patronise girls when it comes to STEM subjects, and at Aldenham School they encourage their female pupils to study subjects such as resistant materials or textiles by holding them to the same expectations as male pupils. 

Discussing this further, he says: “We offer a wide variety of opportunities in the co-curricular programme to complement the design and technology curriculum including the build your own computer club, motor club, robotics club, design engineer construct club and eco garden. Through these we hope to appeal to all of our students.” 

Is it completely balanced yet? No. However, the key is that we are improving the gender imbalance, ensuring our future is in the hands of both boys and girls.

Thornton College trials MekaMon robots to teach coding

Thornton College for girls in Milton Keynes has been one of the first schools in the country to use Reach Robotic’s MekaMon robots to teach coding to their students.

The school has been working with Reach Robotics as part of the pilot programme for Reach EDU. MekaMon is a highly advanced quadruped robot, which uses the new ReachEDU app to offer a structured pathway to learning coding and, crucially, the option to be creative once students have got to grips with the concepts.

Speaking about Thornton College’s use of MekaMon, Jo Scott, careers and enterprise leader, says: “The reception to MekaMon at our STEM event last month was amazing, so naturally we were delighted to be part of the EDU pilot programme. As a girls’ school, we are particularly keen to promote STEM to our pupils – both in terms of their studies and future careers.”

John Rees, co-founder of Reach Robotics, says: “It has been brilliant working with Thornton College. As we prepare to launch ReachEDU next month, we want to ensure we are getting as much feedback and input from teachers and pupils as possible. We want to deliver an education platform that entertains, inspires and educates. Our time at Thornton is integral to achieving this aim.”

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