Interview: Emma Russo, South Hampstead High School

Emma Russo, South Hampstead High School’s new director of STEM, talks to Jo Golding about showcasing STEM achievements more, making policymakers pay attention and encouraging girls to speak up and speak out

Q. You started your new role as director of STEM at South Hampstead High School in September 2019. Can you tell me about what this entails and what ideas you are looking to implement?

To start with, this role has been about collating and championing all the brilliant things that are going on at South Hampstead High School already and ensuring students are aware of all the opportunities available to them. As we move through the year, I’ll be working on more initiatives that continue to get the students excited about STEM subjects.

For example, a group of year 8 students have started a science blog featuring female scientists and their amazing work, as well as recommending events and exhibits taking place in London to their fellow students.

I am also looking to provide more opportunities for students to showcase their achievements in STEM subjects, in the way that one might with their music or art. These will include cross-curricular links, such as a science photography competition.

At the junior school, two of our sixth form scientists are helping with a new half-termly STEM challenge, which encourages our very youngest pupils to experiment and get creative. Their first challenge has been to design and build their own marble run.

We have so much talent and so many students who are really excited to explore science, technology, engineering and maths, and the connections between them; I hope to continue to tap into that enthusiasm.

Q. You’re also a physics teacher, assistant headteacher and head of year 11. What inspired you to go into education in the first place?

When thinking about a career to pursue, I realised that all of the things that I enjoyed most were working with young people. Having worked on charity projects and with youth groups at university, I loved the variety that this would offer. Whilst at Durham University, I took a module called ‘Physics into Schools’ – a fantastic programme – and I loved engaging students through the primary school science club that I set up there.

At the school, uptake of physics is significantly above the national average for girls

Q. We met at the Global Education & Skills Forum in 2019 where you said it was interesting to hear about how to affect education policymaking. Is this something you’d like to drive forward in your school?

I think that policymakers do not always have classroom or school experience beyond their own education, and I am definitely interested in schools being part of that conversation – to be purposeful and effective. I think that schools can lead the way through action and make policymakers pay attention.

Our student-led Project Zero, for example, which focuses on reducing our school’s environmental impact by our 150th anniversary in 2026, has galvanised the whole community to implement so many changes. Our recent whole school 10km walk along the Thames ended at the Houses of Parliament, where the head girl team delivered hundreds of letters (written by pupils on scraps of recycled paper) urging their MPs to take action with regard to climate change.

Each year we appoint pupils as digital leaders to champion the use of technology – to encourage their peers and others to be digitally responsible as well as digitally literate. Last year, they won a prize at the ChildNet film competition at the British Film Institute for their animation on ‘a vision for a better internet’.

South Hampstead is a school with a love of discussion; girls here love asking questions, challenging the status quo, making arguments and engaging with social issues. Debating is one of the many partnership initiatives we’ve recently developed; our director of debating and public speaking, Dr Kate Etheridge, has set up a local debating hub with nearby state schools, organising regular fixtures and friendly competitions to encourage more girls to speak up and speak out.

I’m also exploring STEM-related opportunities with our newly appointed director of partnerships and employability, Dr Rachel Osborne, who teaches physics here.

Q. What do you think makes South Hampstead High School stand out?

I love the culture at South Hampstead – there is a friendly, supportive atmosphere for staff and students. There is also a culture of working hard and wanting to achieve amongst the students, so there is great opportunity for exploring science in a stimulating context.

The school really encourages young women to be the best that they can be and I love being part of this feminist dynamic.

STEM here stands out too. We try to reduce inherent, unconscious bias by presenting subject choices in a gender-neutral way. Maths is by far the most popular A-level choice and uptake of physics is significantly above the national average for girls; we have several Arkwright Engineering Scholars in the sixth form, and many students go on to study subjects such as biomedical sciences, materials science, physics and astronomy.

We are lucky to have so many positive, passionate female role models – the entire physics department is staffed by women. We have a new female coder-in-residence and trailblazing alumnae like Dr Jess Wade (recipient of the IoP’s Daphne Jackson Medal for her work championing girls in science) who really help to inspire the next generation of STEM advocates.

The school really encourages young women to be the best that they can be and I love being part of this feminist dynamic

Through everyday teaching, we provide a plethora of hands-on, tangible experiences to help make STEM relatable. Our junior school pupils undertake forensic experiments in the senior school science labs; pupils recently enjoyed an immersive afternoon engaged with astronomy and astrophysics in an inflatable planetarium; there are numerous, hands-on digital and coding clubs at lunchtime; and A-level scientists regularly attend lectures at UCL, the Royal Society and the Royal Institution.

We run incredible trips further afield too, including visits to NASA HQ in Orlando and CERN in Geneva.

We also welcome many inspiring external speakers, such as Angela Saini, author of Inferior – How Science Got Women Wrong, who challenges the pseudo-science behind gender stereotyping.

Subsequently, the girls are inspired to take the initiative. They’ve set up an experimental science club for younger pupils, a lunchtime space society and a science magazine called Eureka! with contributions from girls across the school.

Our academic results are outstanding, but strong performances in national competitions, awards and Olympiads are testament to the girls’ interest and determination in exploring above and beyond the syllabus.

Emma Russo will work on initiatives that continue to get students excited about STEM subjects

Q. What was your favourite subject at school?

I loved physics and English literature, which I think fit together better than most people assume! It is still my favourite intersection when I can see a piece of theatre that engages with scientific concepts.

Q. What is your favourite book?

The Wife by Meg Wolitzer has become my new favourite book. She writes so beautifully and subtly manages to make a lot of social commentary through her storytelling.

Q. What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?

I love going to the theatre, cycling and travelling as much as possible in the school holidays.

Q. If you weren’t in education, what would you do instead?

Even though I think I would find it challenging, I would probably try and be involved in public policymaking.

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