Having originally trained as a structural engineer with Ove Arup before moving into teaching, I know there is a great deal to be excited about regarding new and currently unimagined careers in Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Mathematics (STEAM). These will require creativity and strong communication skills alongside an understanding of sophisticated scientific theory. To meet our shared global challenges for the future, it is vital that women are able to play an equal role in all sectors of the world economy.
We are therefore delighted to be launching a new Engineering, Enterprise and Technology Department (EET) here at CLC in September 2015, where business awareness, design, robotics, problem-solving and use of different materials will all combine together to develop real confidence and skills. All girls are already learning to code in the junior years, and senior girls regularly progress to further study at Cambridge, Oxford, Imperial, UCL, MIT and Columbia amongst many others.
Through the Engineering Education Scheme this year, a team of girls is working with Safran Messier-Bugatti-Dowty and have investigated bio-mimicry in aircraft landing gear joints. Another team is working with L3-TRL Technology to research and develop a model industrial system in order to further develop their product, IGUANABlue, on a low-cost platform. On a lighter note, a game of real-life large-scale Angry Birds has entertained and educated girls about equations of motion. All agreed that using combustible gases was a lot more fun than stroking the screen of an iPad!
Academic studies suggest that girls benefit from strong and early advice dispensed by careers advisers and teachers. Therefore, it is important to ensure that we provide the tools necessary for girls to make an informed choice regarding furthering their studies in science. To this end, there is no substitute for accessing female role models who are passionate about what they do, and we are blessed with many inspirational alumnae who are generous with their advice and wisdom.
Dame Mary Archer (CLC 1962) has won awards for her work on renewable energy and has been appointed national Chair of the Science Museum Group by the Prime Minister. Dr Liz Miller (CLC 1968) was voted Mind Champion of the Year in 2008, and Belinda Swain (CLC 1974), currently at Rolls-Royce, received the Lifetime Achievement Award at the WISE Women of Outstanding Achievement Awards in 2012. Recently Dr Clare Marx (CLC 1968) became the first woman appointed President of the Royal College of Surgeons in its 400 year history.
Voting with their feet
Nationally, girls have tended to opt out of science subjects at 16+, but the number of classes being taught here at College continues to rise, including a very significant majority of sixth form pupils taking Maths and/or at least one science. Excellent results are achieved but College is not an “exam factory”. It is a place to nurture curiosity, creativity and confidence, all of which are achieved via our innovative science enrichment programmes, and we are delighted to be a major education partner of the annual Cheltenham Science Festival, which uses our venues and provides unique opportunities for our staff and pupils. Other schools join us for our biennial MedSTEM Conference, at which we welcome dozens of leading scientific figures and organisations for a day of inspiring advice for senior pupils.
Girls win an array of hotly contested awards each year ranging from Gold medals in the national Olympiad and Challenge competitions to Silver CREST Awards and successes at international essay challenges. They also show a creative and courageous approach to their own projects. In Biology, these are as diverse as testing the effect of peppermint oil on intestinal muscle contraction, the inhibitory effect of pine needle extract on seed germination and the influence of colour on the human ability to recall words and phrases.
Dorothea Beale’s pioneering vision continues
The teaching of science is deeply embedded in the pioneering history of this College. Indeed, until Dorothea Beale (our second Principal, suffragette and educational reformer), broke with tradition and began teaching science lessons, it was taught to very few girls anywhere in the world. Even she had to introduce it gently to the CLC curriculum under the socially acceptable banner of ‘physical geography’ - schools were reluctant to offer the subject for fear it would harm a girl’s prospects of finding a husband and we have letters of protest from fathers in our archives to prove it! Despite pressure from social norms, Dr Clara De Brereton Evans (CLC 1884) became the first woman in Britain to take a doctorate in Chemistry, and Dr Helen Mackay (CLC 1906) was the first female fellow of the Royal College of Physicians.
We were one of the first schools to have a working observatory and telescope in the 19th Century, and today our giant inflatable domed digital Starlab is now a strong following, allowing the heavens to rotate without light pollution even on a sunny day! This year, we have joined the Cleeve Hill Ogden Trust Partnership to hold a day for our partnership school, so they too can enjoy the Starlab. Ogden Trust provided a solarscope, which pupils used in conjunction with our Meade telescope to view the recent solar eclipse from the garden. Girls studying Physics and Mathematics have visited both CERN and NASA’s Kennedy Space Centre.
Girls who may be considering a career in biomedical surgery, as a medic, vet or dentist have a specific programme to help them prepare, including working on their skills of observation and dexterity in the popular Facial Reconstruction Club. Our Synthetic Chemistry group gives girls a chance to delve into real wet chemistry, and use modern analytical techniques to probe their synthesised molecules.
In one of our most innovative projects of recent times, we joined forces with the South Devon Chilli Farm and the University of Oxford for ‘Red Hot Science’. Girls grew their own chilli plants to test for capsaicin – the substance that causes hot flavours in food. This project puts College at the very cutting edge of school science teaching and, alongside many of the other co-curricular activities, exposes girls to science usually only experienced at university level.
Our Wildlife Gardening Club helps girls to pursue their passion for conservation and biodiversity. The girls have built a bug hotel in a secluded corner of the College grounds to encourage key pollinating species, undertaken a spring bulb planting programme, volunteered with the local Wildlife Trust and are monitoring wildlife in and around the College site. Their passion to conserve the natural world and its species extends beyond the College boundaries; a recent expedition saw 17 girls helping to rehabilitate and track orphaned orangutans released back into the wilds of primary rainforest in Borneo, Indonesia. They were the first school group ever to reach the remote release site.
We are justifiably proud of the impact this College continues to have on the wider world, and of the way our teaching has helped girls to thrive in an area not traditionally popular with women. Our commitment to science signals our clear intent to give girls an unparalleled opportunity to explore the physical and natural world around them; with the informal discussion group Café Scientifique being founded by Sixth Form girls next year, there is no doubt that we are all enjoying the adventure together.
Written in celebration of National Women in Engineering Day, Tuesday 23rd June 2015
Belinda Swain BA FRAeS, Guild member and Chief Airworthiness Engineer at Rolls-Royce Plc, commented:
Engineering is the application of science to practical issues and as such nearly everything we do requires or is supported by Engineering. From getting up in the morning, woken by an alarm clock or iPhone, and getting food from the fridge to transport (both what we travel in and on) and our school or workplace – we use many engineered products. As the world gets ever more crowded, the need for Engineering solutions only continues to grow. We need large numbers of engineers with different approaches and experiences. Women make up 50% of the population so are essential to getting the engineers we need.
Engineering is hugely varied. It may have a large practical and outdoor element, such as building bridges and oil rigs, or it may be desk-based, designing the bridge or a mobile phone. Engineering may be novel, researching new material or methods of space flight, or it may be about finding ways to keep things going, like telephone distribution systems that are many years old. It is, however, always creative and one can generally see how what one does affects people. It can be a very satisfying career and, because of the variety, there will be a job within engineering that would appeal to most women. There are many opportunities within Engineering for women and many employers, particularly larger employers, are keen to tap into this pool of talent.
Does prejudice against women – a view that they are unlikely to be good Engineers – still exist in the workplace? Of course it does in places, and there is also unintended discrimination, often with people having an expectation of what someone in a particular job will look like, and not perhaps considering a woman. However this has changed and is continuing to change. Personally I think the lack of women in Engineering has more to do with the perception of engineering as dirty, mechanical, uncreative or ‘bit odd’ for a woman, than of opportunities to become and develop as a professional engineer. Schools have a big part to play in changing this perception and I hope to see many more women from CLC and elsewhere joining the profession.