Failure: a valuable lesson for our young people

Dr John Hind reflects on the lessons learnt from a recent visiting STEM professional

Over recent months, much been said about the need to get more women into STEM careers and specifically about the need to encourage the uptake of STEM subjects by girls in school. Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (WISE) report that just 12.8% of the STEM workforce in the UK is made up of women.  

Many theories abound as to why there is this huge disparity. Could it be due to stereotyping from a young age; issues with childcare or the apparently less competitive nature of women? Perhaps the issues lie in the marginalisation of women in STEM careers or in what women believe such careers would involve? Whatever the reason, the reality is that employment in STEM industries is insufficiently diverse. 

Recently, we were lucky enough to welcome Professor Danielle George to Dame Allan’s Schools. Professor George spoke to our girls from years seven to 13 about her own career, the world of STEM and about the importance of ambition and having goals, no matter how far in to the future the realisation of these goals may be. Professor George works at the University of Manchester as a Professor in Microwave Communication Engineering and is an Associate in the Faculty of Engineering and Physical Sciences. In 2014 she became the sixth woman in 189 years to deliver the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures. 

Professor George’s theme was ‘Engineered in your Imagination’. She explained how all the greatest engineering and scientific inventions began in someone’s imagination and that much of what we use today, from the smart watch to the iPhone, was ‘imagined’ long before the technology was available for them to be built. She told the girls we are all born scientists, because we all ask questions and that asking questions leads to imagining solutions. Professor George spoke about her work with the European Space Agency as a junior engineer, where she worked on the Planck space craft which mapped the universe after the ‘Big Bang’. She inspired the rapt audience with her words about tenacity, the benefits of failure and seeing the bigger picture. “I fail a lot,” she told them. “The trick is to embrace these failures; we don’t have to succeed the first time, we learn from our mistakes and move forwards.” 

In our modern world, where every action and every failure seems to be documented, shared and commented on, it is difficult for young people to be able to see failure as a positive experience, but there is no doubt that it can be, as Professor George explained.

Self-belief is something we instill in our students from the moment they come into Dame Allan’s. No child in the schools is expected, or even encouraged, to get everything right all the time. We want our young people to explore, to challenge themselves and to test and try – this is how they develop as people, learn their capabilities and test their limitations. Ultimately this helps their confidence to grow and drives their ambition.

Professor George is an excellent role model for the girls at Dame Allan’s, where we believe we can and do help to address the legitimate concerns about the lack of women in STEM careers. The Schools’ Diamond Structure reduces the risk of gender stereotyping and means that girls who wish  to pursue careers in STEM  do not face the challenges evident in the world outside the Schools whilst at Dame Allan’s. Even a cursory visit to our recently-opened state of the art Design Technology suite highlights not only our commitment to the promotion of STEM subjects but also the ready accessibility of our provision to both boys and girls.

Of course, the facilities alone do not provide a solution. Whatever path our young people choose to follow, they must be passionate about it. There should be no barriers in their way, including their own mind. It is the job of schools, parents, adults, friends and peers to make sure this does not happen. We hope that, like Professor George, all of our students will find their passion and be able to follow it.

Dr John Hind is Principal at Dame Allan’s Schools.

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