11 February 2022

Why is STEM important for girls?

It’s strange that we are still answering this question when we have been working so hard for many years to encourage and enable girls to flourish in STEM subjects.

© BalanceFormCreative/Shutterstock

It’s crucial for women to have the same access to opportunities to shape and improve our world. We have some fantastic examples of where women have made a vital impact within STEM including:

  • Professor Sarah Gilbert DBE – a British vaccinologist
  • Professor Gillian Wright MBE FRSE – a Scottish astronomer
  • Professor Julia Steinberger – a Professor of Ecological Economics

Science has had an image of being only for certain types of people, yet as we face more and more interdisciplinary challenges and complex problems, all contributions from different members of society make valuable contributions.

In my experience as a teacher, it may be that the diet of school science lack’s purpose and engagement. If you study music for example, you wouldn’t dream of only allowing students to play an instrument once they have learnt vast amounts of theory. In science, the assessment system and the quantity of material needed to be covered in a standard UK GCSE means that in depth learning and probing of questions and challenges is curtailed. In my experience, all students flourish when they can delve into material, develop a sense of ownership and have opportunities to contribute themselves.

Some of my students, who happened in this case to be women, looked at the distribution of dark matter in galaxy clusters and looked at positioning radiation detectors in a new experiment to find a magnetic monopole at the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (CERN). They saw they could achieve results, present their findings, and be taken seriously as part of the scientific community. This encouraged and supported these women in STEM in a way that genuinely valued their contribution and included them in science. 

We cram in content into our GCSE courses under the guise of standards and rigour when we could be freeing up potential and ideas of young people at a time when they are the most risk taking and open.  It has become apparent that the gold standards of exams give students options, but STEM education could show young people pathways into for example green jobs, energy research, medical technology. I’m not convinced that all the content at GCSE is essential. Imagine in a class learning about energy resources for example solar panel research – what’s been happening and the phenomenal opportunities for making solar panel roofs, windows and solutions which would make a career in STEM clear and attractive.

I am sure many teachers do include this material but these fundamental hooks for science are so often add-ons and quickly covered to show applications rather than being able to have the time to tackle such ideas in real depth.

We need all voices in the existential challenge we face and all perspectives, whether it’s looking at nature solutions and underground networks to trap carbon or tackling tipping points in the Antarctic and Siberian permafrost. For example, if you look at the British Antarctic Survey led by Professor Dame Jane Francis you see a group of people all following their passions. These institutions can benefit from the help of students and in turn the students can learn from those working in the industry.

So much of our world revolves around STEM concepts and all students need to have confidence in their abilities to participate in decisions. Many women in STEM are fantastic role models and we need to celebrate and promote them to talk in the news and wider media about STEM. But this needs to be all women in STEM ­– for example it was frightening to read this article from Cynthia Chapple for the BBC about how she was the token black scientist in a grant application.

To be honest, I would prefer if all days, rather than once a year, we consider women and STEM and all people and STEM. It’s a push we need to make every day.

Becky Parker, Physics Teacher and Visiting Professor, School of Physics and Astronomy, at Queen Mary University of London