Nurturing female ambassadors in STEM from a young age

This British Science Week, Windlesham House School’s Sarah Sutherland says teachers need to look at new ways to nurture female ambassadors in STEM

It’s widely recognised that the global STEM sector has struggled to recruit more women into science, tech, engineering and mathematical careers. In line with this, female student enrolment globally, for STEM-related subjects at degree level is particularly low with only 5% of women choosing natural science, mathematics and statistics.

The gender gap is still wide open and schools need to be doing all they can today to enhance the educational experience of young females across the country.

Yet the encouragement, engagement and inspiration around STEM subjects for girls must start from a very young age and teachers need to be looking at new ways to nurture female ambassadors in school across subjects like science, maths and design technology (DT) much earlier on and certainly before learners start senior school.

Once senior school is in sight, many students have subconsciously made up their mind about what they believe they enjoy or excel at. This then has a big influence on their future educational path.

Ditching STEM stereotypes

Children need positive role models across all areas of their schooling; none more so, than in subjects that are deemed to be male-orientated. Younger children have naturally not been exposed to the stereotypes that surround the teenage years and thus they are inspired to be confident in these areas without the connotations that gender may later bring.

As a school, and as a female teacher of maths and computing, we want all of our children to develop a love for these areas early on, alongside the experiences that will shape their futures.  Ultimately this means ensuring that what you teach is relatable to younger children.

When it comes to mathematical careers, we need to dispel myth that this is a man’s world

For example, when teaching children a weekly computing lesson, these should be practical hands-on sessions and might include advance activities such as dressing up as a bumblebee in the right sequence before transferring that theory to programming a beebot. It’s quite an achievement for young people of prep school age to know what an algorithm is and to understand the need for drive of process over and above product, across all subjects.

Schools should think carefully and creatively about the teaching of STEM subject areas in the younger years. Introduction to exploration of what happens inside a computer, a tinkering lab with opportunities for adult modelling and deepening understanding.

By celebrating the roles that women hold in workplaces, which are often dominated by males, we are giving young girls the inspiration to achieve in whatever field interests them and not to be limited by gender stereotypes. The younger years of schooling are where the girls see the majority of female teachers, which allows strong role models to develop.

“Schools should think carefully and creatively about the teaching of STEM subject areas in the younger years.”

Creative exploration

Encouraging more girls to flourish and enjoy STEM subjects such as maths is vital, and creativity and problem solving are key. Nurturing female ambassadors means encouraging girls to design, create and solve complex problems be it in maths, science or technology and to share their successes. It’s empowering to surround them with opportunities for creative exploration.

By not teaching the subjects in isolation, schools can develop girls’ abilities to develop practical problem-solving techniques, which are transferable across all subjects. Inviting inspirational females into school to work with the children, while teaching them valuable skills means schools are also showing the girls real world examples that women can be successful in these roles.

As primary educators, parents also play a vital role in establishing these links in early childhood. Encouraging children to ask questions when in the home and out and about whilst allowing them to search for the answers themselves with guidance, nurture and modelling will give them greater opportunities to learn.

Giving girls the confidence and support to believe in themselves, that they can be whoever they want to be, starts in the home. Children need to be nurtured, encouraged, praised and challenged in the right way.

Dispelling myths

When it comes to mathematical careers, we need to dispel myth that this is a man’s world and empower our girls, but they need to be inspired to choose these pathways for themselves. It is pointless just telling a child they are good at maths; you must tell them why and how, give them examples of how they can use these subjects in all manner of careers and then challenge them to challenge themselves.

Rewrite history by creating equality in workforces. We don’t know what careers our girls will want to choose or what careers will exist in the future, but encouraging them to solve problems is a great start.

Why I became a maths teacher

At school maths was my least favourite subject. I found it difficult and uninspiring. I was not supported and I shied away from any level of challenge. There was no opportunity for creativity and I quickly lost interest. When I became a teacher I was adamant I didn’t want children to feel the way I did at school.

Every day I give them the opportunity to develop their understanding in a fun, practical and pressure free way, celebrating their successes. I want the children to feel confident in their problem solving so they are encouraged to convince me they have got the answers right.

At school I was taught that the answers were key, in my lessons the process to the answer is key. If children can explain their thinking they can also spot the errors and solve them.

This is key not only in maths, but across the curriculum. By developing an ethos of process over product from the moment our children join the pre-prep we are empowering them to be successful in a world of STEM in the future.

Sarah Sutherland is head of junior curriculum and a mathematics and ICT teacher at Windlesham House School.

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