How can we provide a lasting foundation which inspires and empowers girls in STEM subjects?
Parents of girls at GDST schools will be familiar with the schools’ collective commitment to providing outstanding, inspiring teaching in STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) throughout a girl’s education. As professionals, we are well-aware of the statistics shared by WISE Campaign which inform us that in 2018, only 22% of those in Core STEM (science, engineering, information and communications technology and skilled trades) occupations were women. A February 2019 press release by the Department for Education, aimed at dispelling girls’ misconceptions of STEM subjects, informs us that “girls are substantially less likely than boys to consider taking STEM subjects at A Level” and “girls are less likely to say STEM is their best subject”. In fact, a November 2018 New Scientist article by Valerie Jamieson entitled ‘Women in physics: Why there’s a problem and how we can solve it’, states that, in 2016, no girls studied Physics A Level in almost half of the schools in England that educate girls.
So how can we provide a lasting foundation at Prep level which inspires and empowers girls in STEM subjects?
Inspiring girls in STEM through excellent teaching and learning opportunities, and providing them with appropriate role-models is only part of the answer. In order to truly empower girls, our focus should also be on building resilience, confidence and perseverance, which are integral to many areas of STEM learning and where success is rarely instant. Four years ago, I attended a conference in London on Empowering Women in Educational Leadership at which the well-known research scientist and practising psychologist Dr Linda Papadopoulos talked about the confidence gap between girls and boys. Girls, she indicated, are more likely than boys to associate their own mistakes with failure. We should start there if we want girls to embrace a scientific direction.
Self-belief and perseverance are integral to success in many areas of STEM, where failure in design or experiment is part and parcel of learning. “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again,” is a saying we can associate with many of the world’s most successful scientists, engineers and mathematicians such as Marie Curie, the first female recipient of the Nobel Prize.
The need to think holistically about how to embed a lasting love for learning comes as no surprise to anyone who, like me, has seen best practice in a Prep environment. In order to truly empower girls, our focus should not be just on teaching STEM subjects but on building resilience, confidence and perseverance in the face of failure. In her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Professor Carol Dweck of Stanford University writes “If parents want to give their children a gift, the best thing they can do is to teach their children to love challenges, enjoy effort, and keep on learning”. The key is to create an environment where challenge is not feared and where making mistakes is not viewed as a mark of failure but as part of the route to success. We should be equipping girls with the understanding that it is OK to get things wrong and to try again; in the words of Carol Dweck, “no matter what your ability is, effort is what ignites that ability and turns it into accomplishment”.
At Sydenham High Prep School all girls are taught that their potential is not limited. They receive specialist teaching in Science, Computing and Design and Technology, alongside high quality Maths teaching. The school’s curriculum has been carefully designed and is continually updated to motivate, inspire and challenge. Girls are encouraged to enjoy challenge and they are supported to build resilience, self-belief, perseverance and fearlessness. From September 2019, we will be introducing a regular lecture series in which inspiring role-models will be talking to the girls about their careers, specific interests and successes in STEM, and these girls will be in no doubt about the value of their own contributions to STEM. Like all GDST girls, Sydenham High girls are encouraged to aim high and be fearless in their learning.