Rose Russell: a passion for supporting girls in STEM
30 September 2013
I thought I would share with you where my passion for supporting girls in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math’s (STEM) started.
- How we created enthusiasm and passion for STEM through an extra-curricular club.
- The success we've had because of it.
- How very important it is for schools to give girls opportunities to explore STEM.
I love the job I do; I’m very enthusiastic about engaging and spreading the message of STEM and have actively participated in Crest projects CRESTproject, as well as the National Science + Engineering Competition (NSEC) at the Big Bang (BBF) round the country since 2010, and we have had so much to celebrate of late. This year was our proudest moment, when both our teams won two major prizes plus a surprise personal visit to our stand from the Prime Minister, David Cameron at the BBF National finals.
In 2010 I set up a STEM Club, called Visualize, STEM a word so familiar now, that it is hard to believe that three years ago it had very little meaning to me or the school. But that all changed it seemed in an instant when I attended an inspirational day by the Institute of Civil Engineering (ICE) to launch the Map of the Olympic park alongside the Create Sport Challenge (CSC) national schools competition in October 2010, it certainly had a significant impact on me.
Although I had very little knowledge of what would be the best way to run a STEM club. I knew my main aim was to create a love of the STEM subjects and to provide a refreshing change to regular lessons and activities. I wanted fun and engaging projects that would excite and inspire the pupils. The CSC (which was Crest accredited) aimed at 12 to 13 year olds was perfect for our first Crest and design challenge.
Students had to design and make a model for a sustainable sports venue, and it immediately captured the student’s imagination, as it did mine and so started my passion for teaching STEM. The competition challenged the pupils to think about the project from an engineering perspective, taking into account real technical, infrastructure and sustainability constraints and concerns such as:
- transport links
- energy/water use
- environment (biodiversity)
- communities/town planning
- Safety aspects.and re-generation
During the project, they appraised the site’s suitability, explored the area’s demographics to gauge the need for such a facility.The challenge certainly championed education for the real world; we ran the task to link in with our local community. Meeting deadlines and making crucial decisions featured heavily throughout the project. Students become self-directed and creative problem solvers, as individuals and members of a team. It enabled them to look for needs, wants and opportunities and respond to their research by sitting down together and developing a range of ideas and then transferring those ideas and initial sketches into tangible products and systems. It introduced them to a range of disciplines, including
- 2D & 3D visual Art
- Graphic and Product design
- Architectural and structural design
- Photo imaging
- Creative writing
The experience helped to develop important skills required for careers in STEM such as teamwork, time management. It also highlighted, even at this young age our
- Future managers & Team workers
- Effective communicators
- problem solvers
- Creative thinkers & Designers
Watching individuals achieve, by taking on responsibilities and growing in confidence has been a very rewarding experience for all involved. But most of all it offered the pupils an enjoyable and transforming learning experience.
During the competition we had a fantastic opportunity to welcome Peter Hansford the ICE President (at the time) and his team to visit the school and see first-hand how the challenge he initiated was progressing. This was the first of many opportunities that have since followed, where students are introduced to inspirational people and experts. This gives them a chance to gain hands-on experience in the kind of work scientist, technologist and civil engineers do day-to-day, highlighting the range of skills needed and impressing on them the incredible career opportunities and futures that they can have if they chose an education in STEM.
We had two projects short listed for the London regional finals, and we were declared the regional runner-up winners of the Create Sports Challenge, winning a tour of the Olympic Park as the prize. We entered the winning model into the BBF London regional finals 2011 and successfully achieved:
- A Crest Bronze runner-up prize
- A place in the BBF National Finals Birmingham 2012.
The girls found the whole experience inspirational and engaging although no core prizes were won.
On my return I felt that a project involving both the Design & Technology and Science departments working together was a great opportunity. The Practical Action Crest global challenges fitted perfectly. With only 6 weeks to produce a project for the next round of the BBF London regional finals. We carefully recruited new members; this ensured we remained at the forefront to deliver on time, Comprising of two teams’ calling themselves Science Angels; theirproject looked at providing a solution to food shortages in Kenya and using Photovoltaic Glass in the construction of a new building and Sus-tain-ables; project was a design for sustainable housing for poor people in Bangladesh.
They worked solidly during lunch, after school club, even during half term to complete their Crest projects, up grading from Bronze to a Silver award. The projects were both stimulating and challenging and fuelled the pupils imagination and allowed them to put what they had learned in lessons to practical use. I was greatly inspired by the uniqueness, and creativity of these young ladies, who quickly developed a passion for STEM. Such dedication and commitment clearly illustrates the impact the CREST Awards have had on our potential young female engineers. They won the Crest Award for Creativity at the regional finals and both teams won places to the BBF National finals 2013.
In retrospect, our successes to-date has been:
- CSC runner up and Olympic park tour
- Bronze Crest Awards for Creativity and Real World context at each BBF Regional finals since 2011
- Places in the BBF National Finals 2012, 2013, 2014
- Sus-tain-ables: UKFT Textile Edge Prize + £500
- Science Angels: Shell Prize for Sustainability, +£500
- Bronze & Silver Crest Award for students
- Prime Minister David Cameronvisit to stand
Perhaps the primary reason why Visualize has been so successful is its connection with local business. Both teams worked on sustainable projects in partnership with two industry based companies, Polysolar Ltd a manufacturer of unique transparent thin-film photovoltaic glazing for building integrated applications and Mike Wye & Associates providers of natural insulation.
To be able to take two teams to the finals of a national competition and win two top prizes is a great achievement for the club. Reflecting on the whole experience, and taking into account all that has happened since – there’s no question about the value, benefits and opportunities, extra-curricular projects like a STEM can bring. As well as showing girls that STEM isn't just a man's world, but one where they can have every opportunity to excel. I would recommend it to all especially for those that have yet to incorporate STEM into the curriculum; they are missing a great opportunity.
How can schools help:
So I ask the question - how important is it for schools to open up new opportunities for girls to explore STEM? Simply put, women are an untapped, resource to the industry. the latest industry figures that show that only 6 per cent of the UK engineering workforce in 2012 are female, despite the fact that women make up 48% of the workforce overall.
According to Semta, as the engineering workforce ages and retires, one in five young people will need to become an engineer if the UK has any chance of addressing severe skills shortages. Which means Britain will have to train over 96,000 new engineers just to replace those who retire. This shortfall suggests that women, who are traditionally under-represented in engineering, must be tapped as a source of technical talent and innovation
Clearly then, schools must step up and play an important role to infuse an exciting STEM curriculum into the classroom. They also have an obligation to the governors to do what is in the best interest of the school community; one of the main purposes of education is to prepare young people for future careers and the world of work. If we are going to make any head way to bridge the gap between girls and engineering, they will definitely need to play a bigger part in actively addressing these issues.
I know many school systems and national programs across the country that is doing incredible work exposing female students to engineering. Which certainly didn’t exist when I was at school, but it needs to be more widespread and serve as a national platform? And, while it’s fair to say that progress has been made, this is obviously a challenge - the need to get schools to respond – to ensure the up and coming generation has a wide education and portfolio of portable skills and qualifications necessary for a STEM career. The underlying message is clear; they need to act immediately.
Raising the profile and supporting the growth of STEM can be done by helping to promote and encourage more practical application of the subjects, whether that is within the curriculum or via extra-curricular activity, as this may positively affect pupils’ subject decision making at Key Stage 4. I've experienced this first hand; an enjoyment of a subject is as significant as attainment, in terms of a pupil’s likelihood to pursue it further. Get them when their young and you have them for life!
I recognise schools are facing new challenges and are under a lot of pressure and burden from Ofsted and league tables. At the same time schools cannot do it alone; if they are going to provide greater opportunities in creating the right environment to support girls to explore STEM. They will need to build a supportive network, to begin laying the groundwork. Collaborating and sharing ideas, practises and resources with neighbouring schools and community is another way forward. The industry must step up its role too, in promoting itself, through close school links in attracting young women to this exciting career.
I think the input of employers into education is becoming - increasingly critical in re-educating students and teachers about the relevance of STEM to their everyday lives and the career opportunities that are available. Business is about strategic alliances and I believe strongly in business partnerships. So it’s imperative schools work with businesses to tap into their skills base. Creating education and designing programmes which satisfy on all levels that responds/reflects to their needs and raised aspirations for the future. It’s all about working together to amplify the STEM/message to a wider audience; it’s a win-win situation for all.
Of course adoption of any new service/programme takes time and changes in budget structures have caused uncertainty in many schools over recent years. So funding is another concern when setting up something new, but that in no way means that money can’t be allocated to develop STEM. Thankfully we had support from our businesses partners, who offered sponsorship to the club and allowed all of our projects to progress successfully.
Do we have the winning formula I don’t know, but as I wear my hard hat, I feel lucky to be in a position to have that kind of influence where I can motivate and build confidence in young people who struggle with STEM subjects, and provide an extra outlet for students who already show aptitude and are interested in furthering their learning. Visualize is an excellent illustrative example of where this is actually happening.