WISE-ing up: Encouraging girls (and kids generally) in STEM

Kids Love Science

Kids love science (you should see their hands up at a STEM event!), but somehow as they get older many of them learn (or are taught) that it’s boring, or not cool. I do a decent amount of STEM Ambassador volunteering to try to ensure this change in perception never happens: I’ve made Jelly baby DNA with Key Stage 1, talked about non-standard career trajectories with kids almost ready to start university, built birds’ nests with 4 year olds… I’ve even single-handedly done combination presentation-and-practicals for an entire Junior School over the course of one day! I usually get really good feedback from teachers about the events I run, and I also get lots of support from my local STEM Ambassador Hub (one lovely lady even dropping off supplies for an event at my house on her way home!), but it’s not often that I get a letter from a child.

So imagine my pleasure and surprise when I received a letter this week from a child in the Junior School where I did the day-long event. She wrote so eloquently and earnestly. Of course I felt great that she said some lovely things about me. But what was even better is that the event seemed to really spark an interest. Irrespective of her (and all the other children’s) ultimate careers, I’m hoping that the work I do with them encourages them to face the world with open eyes and a thoughtful mind. Words like this are what really keep us STEM Ambassadors going:

Thank you so much for teaching us about DNA. You have sparked my curiosity […] I loved learning all the interesting facts […] This amazed and confused me too! I would love to learn even more about DNA […] Science week would not have been the same without you.

I absolutely agree – Science can be amazing and confusing. And weird, and wonderful, and mind blowing.

Women and Girls in STEM

Encouraging an interest in STEM for all children is at the heart of the volunteering that I do. Recently, however, I have started to learn more about how to specifically encourage women and girls into STEM careers. There’s a lot of talk in the news about gender balance and pay equality, and even the big names in tech like Microsoft have been struggling both to retain women and provide an equal playing field.

It’s not all bad news, though. Every single group and department I’ve worked in (that’s right, every single job) has had lots of diversity, and I’ve never felt neglected, belittled or sidelined. For example, the Oxford e-Research Centre (where I am currently employed) published an article today about my STEM volunteering and the recent career profiles I’ve been a part of (more on that next). But there’s still a lot of work to be done.

There is a huge drop off in the number of girls studying core STEM subjects at the age of 16. Just 35% of girls choose maths, physics, computing or a technical vocational qualification compared to 94% of boys. This reduces the number going on to do a degree or level 4 qualification in maths, physics, computer science or engineering – 9% of girls compared to 29% of boys. Source: WISE Campaign

As such, I’ve jumped on the chances I’ve been given recently to make a positive difference. The North Yorkshire Business and Education Partnership’s ‘Pen Portraits’ have been designed to give female students a glimpse into the variety of STEM based careers available to them. Through my work as a STEM ambassador, I was asked to provide one of these portraits – if you follow the above link, you’ll find me in there along with a number of other great women in STEM.

People Like Me front cover
Source: https://www.wisecampaign.org.uk/people-like-me/the-packs

As a direct result of NYBEP’s work, I became more involved with (and become a member of) WISE and attended a workshop discussing women and girls in STEM. Part of what WISE does is the People Like Me campaign, which creates a series of packs that STEM Ambassadors and schools can use to help girls identify the parts of their personalities that align with STEM careers. If you take a look at the “Careers in North Yorkshire and East Riding” People Like Me pack, you find me there too! The Science Museum are also doing a series of tweets about STEM Ambassadors, which I highly encourage you to peruse (FYI, you may find me amongst them).

It may seem like I’m tooting my own horn (which I am, to a certain extent, after all – this is my blog!), but the main thing that interests me is getting kids engaged in STEM, and I’m hoping that all the volunteering and STEM education skills I’m learning now together with the increased visibility of these issues will ultimately help kids get interested in STEM, stay interested in STEM, and have equal opportunities in STEM careers.



Sweetie DNA and Schoolkids: Genes and DNA for Year 3s

I volunteer with the STEM Ambassador programme in the north of England, and in preparation for a talk / hands-on session I was giving at a local primary school last week, I went in search of visual aids for DNA. The main focus of the event at the school was helping the kids of three Year 3 classes build models of DNA out of sweets (as described in this Guardian article). Before we got stuck into the gummy bears and liquorice, I wanted to give them a short introduction to DNA. I had discovered a lovely pattern for crocheting DNA, which I followed the night before the event, which worked out great (you can see the results in my other blog post about the crocheted DNA itself). After asking them to pass the “DNA” around and take a look, I got started on my talk.

I used the slides below to give them something to look at while we chatted about DNA. Getting them to try to pronounce “Deoxyribonucleic acid” was hilarious for all of us and got them engaged in what I was saying from the start.

After giving them an introduction, I stopped at slide 7 and showed them the sweetie DNA that I had made with my son over the weekend in my best “Here’s one I prepared earlier” style. They were very excited to be using sweets to build their models – I hope they were allowed to eat them at the end of the day!

They were already sitting about 5 to a table, so we handed out enough materials that each table could make one model. The sugar phosphate backbone was strawberry liquorice with sherbet inside, and the As, Ts, Cs, and Gs were gummy bears. They all worked together really well. The gummy bears were very colorful but quite firm, so it took quite a bit of effort for the kids to push them onto the cocktail sticks / toothpicks. However, we had only one poked palm (that I was aware of) – the kids were pretty dexterous. The kids made beautiful models, and it was loads of fun helping them. They were quite keen to show us adults their handiwork, too. They were rightly proud of their sweet-based masterpieces.

Once they finished building their models, we had just a few minutes left, so I showed them slides 8 and 9, which talked about putting genes from one organism in another. I told them to imagine me tearing out a recipe for fluorescence from the jellyfish recipe book and stuffing it into a bacteria’s recipe book. Then, you could create fluorescent bacteria! Slide 9 is a picture of an agar plate of fluorescent bacterial colonies with a difference: the researchers had made a beach scene with them! So, I asked the kids to draw “bacterial colony”pictures with chalk on black paper. They loved that as well: volcanoes, cheetahs, eagles, sharks, and more. One scientific soul even drew DNA and the bacteriophage from slide 2!

The kids were engaged throughout, providing loads of good answers to my questions and asking fantastic questions themselves. I visited 3 different classrooms, and they all showed such an interest in science. 8 is a fabulous age – all curiosity and interest. Thanks very much to the lovely teachers and staff, and of course to the schoolkids; it was fun hanging out with you all! …and thanks for letting me use your pictures of my visit. Thanks also to the STEM Ambassador programme for both organizing this visit and providing the sweets!