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WISE one-day conference at Benenden school

The Women in Science and Engineering conference at Benenden invited students from 15 local schools for a day of discussion, learning and debate- and major ‘science envy’ after seeing STEM centre.

10 October 2016

Benenden is a “WISE” school- in 2012, their freshly renovated STEM centre was opened by the HRH Princess Royal, and since then they’ve opened their laboratory doors to neighbouring Kent community. In December, STEM co-ordinator Sue Harris arranged a hugely successful “Chemistry At Work” day, inviting 400 students for a day of forensics, pyrotechnics and rocket science. After winning a Royal Society of Chemistry schools engagement grant, STEM coordinator Sue Harris joined forces with Dr Jess Wade from the WISE Young Women’s Board to plan celebration of women in science. Engineering accounts for over 27 % of the UK’s GDP- and to fill the skills gap, we need 200,000 more every year until 2022. The Women in Science and Engineering conference at Benenden invited students from 15 local schools for a day of discussion, learning and debate- and major ‘science envy’ after seeing STEM centre.

First up was Prof Becky Parker, visiting professor at Queen Mary University London, physics teacher at Simon Langton Grammar School and director of the Institute for Research in Schools (IRIS). Becky is this year’s Royal Society Kavli medal winner for education, and has recently been made a fellow of the Institute of Physics (IOP). IRIS supports teachers and school students across the country to take part in genuine academic research, contributing to scientific discovery alongside their GCSEs and A-Levels. The projects include detecting radioactivity on the International Space Station using CERN technology, working with the Wellcome Trust on authentic biology and synthesising ionic liquids with UCL. From sixth formers receiving single-author academic papers to year 11 students giving TED X talks after their physics GCSE; IRIS unleashes the full potential of the future STEM workforce. The audience were left inspired and excited for their day of exploration. We had a visitor from ADA College, the UK’s first centre for digital skills, who spoke about myths in tech. Ana debugged our misconceptions- not all tech jobs are about coding or require computer science degrees, there’s room for everyone. The audience were left hoping there was room at ADA. ADA uses project-led teaching to guide students through their A-Level curriculum, with industry-led BTEC programs. ADA directors are developing an apprenticeship scheme and online teaching platform.

Benenden’s WISE Conference was proactively addressing the gender imbalance in STEM- there were no gloomy statistics here, instead a celebration of the brilliant contributions all genders make. We were rewriting the rations: our 9-person panel featured 8 leading ladies of STEM- and one gentleman pharmacologist. From the explosive QinetiQ physicist Dr Tracy Vine, to multi-talented chemist Dr Melanie Bottrill or mechanical engineer Sukie Whitehall, there was something for everyone. These women had some serious CVs. We heard from civil engineer Jessica Rowson about her life redesigning the Camden market before moving to the IOP to champion girls in physics. Emma Thomas discussed the routes to engineering, from her coursework based BTEC to the communication world of Virgin Media and beyond: Emma now works in anaerobic digestion. Daniela Acadabo is developing innovative engineering businesses in Lucca and Benenden graduate Steph Robinson is the lead engineer in human factors at Marshall ADG. Jess from the WISE Young Women’s Board and Sue Harris carefully formulated a quiz based on the work of the eminent speakers. Lunchtime was spent making friends, networking and interrogating panellists on their career history.

We were lucky enough to be joined by the Professor Sara Rankin, a stem-cell researcher in the National Heart and Lung Institute at Imperial College London. Sara is incredibly involved with public engagement- for the past two years her research group have run their own pop-up shop in Hammersmith, showing the public what we get up to in universities. Sara discussed two of her favourite projects: building castles out of baby teeth and using bioengineering to study the fractured bones of blast injuries. Phil Moffit from the Institution for Engineering and Technology described their efforts to support schools with engineering challenges, from the Micro:bit to the IET Young Engineer of the year Awards. Finally, Anne-Marie Imafidon, the infamous head STEMette (and officially member of the UK’s braniest family) discussed her experiences working in STEM. After leaving Oxford as their youngest ever computer science Masters graduate, Anne-Marie worked at Deutsche Bank before setting up a social enterprise showing the world that girls do science. What’s she learnt about careers in STEM? There are no strict uniforms, there are awesome conferences, there is epic swag- and the food is out of this world.

Here’s what Pip in year 12 at Cranbrook School had to say, “I loved it. It was an amazing opportunity to be able to listen to some fantastic scientists talk about their individual and interesting career paths. From the conference, the main message I got was that a science degree can lead to many different places - places that you didn't even know you were interested in! Going to this event has made me feel less nervous about the present and more excited about the future; it has helped me realise that career changes are very common and it is OK to not know where you are going to be in 15 years!

It has also given me more confidence going into the world of science as a woman. Because of organisations like WISE, there are more and more women choosing a career in science and engineering and we are getting closer to having as many women as men in this field. The speakers were very sure that we need more women in science as if we don't, we are missing out on so many ideas and new perspectives."

All-in-all this was a day of wonder, celebrating the diversity and creativity of the STEM world. Thank you to all our speakers and Benenden School.

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