A Q&A with Jenny Brown, Headteacher at St Albans High School for Girls
At St Albans High School for Girls what do you do to try and encourage more girls to take an interest in STEM and study STEM subjects?
Encouraging more girls to take an interest in STEM and study STEM subjects is absolutely part of what we are doing all the time. Our pupils are enthused about STEM learning and endlessly curious, as they are about any learning. Students are inspired by the engagement of teaching staff – many of them female, aspirational and dynamic – acting as encouraging role models and positive reinforcement of STEM futures. A great part of the motivation for girls to study STEM subjects lies in the interest gained in the classroom – this primarily comes from excellent quality staff who engender interest through their own enthusiasm for science.
Through pupil-led initiatives we design exciting opportunities for pupil leadership in science. Pupils have the opportunity to take part in debates, mentor primary pupils, join STEM clubs and attend holiday courses on computing. The school alumni are also a vital force, connecting current pupils with university students and professionals in the STEM field.
It is also really important to break down subject silos through cross curricular scientific learning within school and beyond it. St Albans also works in the local community with maintained schools to share knowledge and break down barriers.
What advice do you have for other schools to help them encourage more girls into STEM?
It’s a bit like encouraging more girls into oxygen. A key point for schools to help encourage more girls into STEM is to acknowledge and celebrate its pervasiveness. Girls are into STEM every time they pick up a phone; instruct Alexa, or Facetime a friend. Finding the emotional hook for girls’ learning is key. To engage girls you often build a story beyond the appeal of logical problem solving and analysing data. So you might channel an adolescent girl’s appetite for communication in STEM – getting them interested in designing systems for younger pupils or students from other schools, and explaining or developing the technology behind what they would be doing or want to do anyway.
Every school has to be thoughtful in order to harness scientific potential in girls. In mixed schools, give girls the opportunity to lead. It’s crucial that female teachers are seen as role models by giving them explicit STEM leadership. There are also lots of projects and competitions for schools to enter: Salter’s festivals, RSC analyst, Olympiads, the Bebras Challenge etc. It’s important to make space for these types of opportunities beyond the curriculum. We have STEAM ambassadors pupils in year 8 who work on science projects with science ambassadors from companies over the course of a year. Co-curricular STEM is key: pupils become more adventurous in their relationship with science and it’s linked to play. It’s fun.
What are some of the roadblocks facing girls’ progression in STEM?
One of the main roadblocks facing girls’ progression in STEM is money. The government have to get on top of recruitment of STEM teachers. It’s important to sell the dream of STEM teaching to prevent possible teachers from entering the commercial sector. University students have a high level of subject expertise, so we need to take advantage of their potential.
Other roadblocks are the essentially 19th Century subject constructs in schools. Arbitrary subjects classified by Victorians remain the way in which we do most of our learning in schools. This needs to shift through creative, exciting and challenging cross-subject teaching, focusing instead on skills: problem-solving, data management; analytical experiment.
Confidence in a co-educational environment is also vital. To ensure girls progression in STEM teachers need to be clever in their manipulation of the learning environment to instil confidence in girls. Teachers often have to find a pull that is creative: this is why STEM should be STEAM. At St Albans project work allows multi-disciplinary investigation. So topics like: Water; Faces; or Spheres demand agile thinking around STEM learning. We make sure that questions breed openness and confidence too (How would you explain plastics to Henry VIII? How would you extract DNA here? Or The answer is 53, what is the question?) Students know that if they ask a question, they will not just get an answer – they are more likely to be given another question to help them elucidate their original answer.
At St Albans High School for Girls roughly 40% of girls go on to study a STEM degree. Enthusiastic, innovative and inspirational teachers are the STEM leads in school. There’s government work to be done on the public exam process, which is unimaginative and can be a deterrent, but degree apprenticeships are also massively important as they are recognised by everyone. It is early days, but T levels also have the potential to enhance girls’ progression in STEM.
How are you educating and preparing pupils for the journey from school into a career?
In the 6th Form girls have leadership opportunities to prepare them for the journey from school into a career. We cannot underestimate the influence of confidence gained from student leadership – and the immense power of being able to perceive/view a future through connecting like minds together and inspirational modelling. The MedVet society at St Albans is one example but there are also 6th form lectures and lecture lunches to engage pupils. St Albans also offers lots of support to their pupils in higher education training so that they know what they are signing up for. Pupils have the opportunity to undertake work and lab placements in preparation for their career.
What are the opportunities of the digital world and how can this benefit girls and women’s progression in STEM?
Advances in technology and the digital world are game-changers in education. It means we can be more creative and adventurous in breaking down subject silos and age structures. St Albans use an AI platform called Bluetec for maths teaching; it is fully adaptive and recognises individuals and their learning needs. This specialised and highly individualised learning platform is exciting and may become common practice in schools.
In light of the digital world, every single girl needs to be a coder. At St Albans, girls are encouraged to attend a summer coder course and all code in school. Through this, pupils become part of the solution for the future impact of technology. We are fortunate to be educating during this digital educational revolution… Schools, universities, our entire society are redefining what we understand by science. How incredibly exciting that is.
This Q&A summary was written by Tatiana de Berg