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18/09/2014

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Awards and public engagement

The 2012 WISE (Women into Science, Engineering and Technology) Awards will have been announced when People & Science appears.  Last year the equivalent competition was known as the Women of Outstanding Achievement Awards. Here, three 2011 winners – Athene Donald, Cary Marsh and Dervilla Mitchell - consider whether their award has affected their public engagement with girls.

Part of increasing visibility

Especially in schools, finds Athene Donald.

Especially in schools, finds Athene Donald.

The stunning photographs that go with the Women of Outstanding Achievement Awards are a wonderful reminder that women in science, technology, engineering and maths and success are not mutually exclusive. To my mind their visible presence in buildings such as the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering provide a constant reminder to visitors, male and female and of any age, that there are some wonderful role models out there. However, that is not quite the same as increasing public engagement work with any segment of the population.

Personally, I’d be hard pressed to say unequivocally that winning one of the awards had specifically increased my public engagement work with girls. For me, the award was part of a trajectory of increasing visibility: schools may readily find me on a quick Google search when looking for a female scientist to come and talk to them.

State sector

But the fact that so many of them can do so creates its own problems. There are only so many hours in the day, and only so many miles that I can travel to speak at schools, so I have tended to restrict visits to schools within about 50 miles of home and only so many a year; I could wish the balance of requests was more towards the state sector.

Speaking at a private school isn’t quite the same as talking at a ‘bog standard’ comprehensive school, where they may get fewer external speakers coming in to increase aspirations.

Life as a scientist

What I have begun to notice is schools inviting me to come and speak at their prize-giving. This isn’t exactly the same, but in fact seems to provide more opportunity to mingle with the school-children. A moment to provide exhortations about considering physics/science to A level and beyond, rather than to excite them about any particular bit of science.

That seems to be the role I have fallen into, for school children, undergraduates and more mature researchers, discussing life as a scientist rather than the research I do. I save those discussions for speaking to teachers’ forums, when the fact that my science straddles physics and biology offers opportunities for most teachers to be able to relate to part at least of the science I do.

So all power to role models and increasing visibility. I believe explaining what it is that scientists do and how they do it is hugely important, but it isn’t quite the same as dialogues about the science itself.

‘Physics was my favourite subject’

Cary Marsh surprises girls.

I was extremely honoured to be named winner of the Innovation and Entrepreneurship (Business and Industry) category at the 2011 Women of Outstanding Achievement Awards. Lord Willis of Knaresborough, in his speech as chair of the judges, talked of how the winners should be celebrated and how more role models were needed to influence and inspire girls to go on to study STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and maths) in higher education.

Cary Marsh surprises girls.

I was extremely honoured to be named winner of the Innovation and Entrepreneurship (Business and Industry) category at the 2011 Women of Outstanding Achievement Awards. Lord Willis of Knaresborough, in his speech as chair of the judges, talked of how the winners should be celebrated and how more role models were needed to influence and inspire girls to go on to study STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and maths) in higher education.

The award has led to numerous requests to speak on the subject, but where I’ve personally felt I’ve had the opportunity to influence and inspire has been by engaging with the girls who are actually making these choices.

When I give talks at schools, the girls are genuinely surprised when I tell them physics was my favourite subject at school. They are even more surprised when I tell them I have an engineering degree and run my own technology business. This tells me we still have quite a way to go in order to dispel the bad image that STEM careers still have.

Need for change

In the UK currently only 17 per cent of jobs in the technology sector are held by women. In India, China and Japan there is far stronger focus on science and technology in education across both sexes. We've only got to look to at these burgeoning economies, where there is a stronger cultural science and technology focus and correspondingly better gender representation in technology roles, to realise something will need to change here in the UK if we want to remain competitive on the global stage in decades to come.

I therefore feel I have not only the opportunity, but the duty to inspire and influence young girls to consider science and technology career choices. That’s why I’m a big supporter of the WISE campaign and will continue to engage with schools wherever I can.

Following the WoOA award, I was also lucky enough to named winner of the ‘Breakthrough Pioneer’ category in Red Magazine’s Hot Women Awards of 2011. The photos of the glitzy awards ceremony and trip to Downing Street afterwards always grab the girls’ attention. Role models are so important – and opening girls’ eyes to the exciting opportunities STEM careers can offer is essential to bringing more girls into the STEM talent pool.

Showing young people where SET can lead

It’s a responsibility, says Dervilla Mitchell.

From the earliest stage of my career I have been involved in promoting science, engineering and technology professions to future generations. Winning the Women of Outstanding Achievement Award last year was a great honour and reinforced both the importance of and my responsibility to engage with and support future engineers, especially young girls.

It’s a responsibility, says Dervilla Mitchell.

From the earliest stage of my career I have been involved in promoting science, engineering and technology professions to future generations. Winning the Women of Outstanding Achievement Award last year was a great honour and reinforced both the importance of and my responsibility to engage with and support future engineers, especially young girls.

Not long after the awards were announced, I was contacted by The Big Bang – an organisation which, though their fairs, gives young people in the UK an insight into where science, technology, engineering and maths can lead them. I was asked to present the prizes at their Cambridge event and it was the perfect opportunity to meet with the students. The events are informative and generate awareness of the many exciting and rewarding opportunities there are out there for them if they have the right experience and qualifications.

I was also invited to be a keynote speaker at the presentation of the Arkwright Scholarships this autumn. The scholarships are presented to students to support them through their A Levels / Scottish Highers and encourage students to pursue engineering or related areas of design at university and to take up careers in the field.

Engineers’ opportunities

I believe we should target more 11–14 year olds so they are well informed and aren’t limited by their subject choices, so engineering or related courses are still an option by the time they move on to higher education.

One of the key challenges that face the engineering sector is that many young people have little understanding of the range of opportunities for engineers. These opportunities to meet school students are really crucial as they give me the chance to convey the message that engineering is an enjoyable, interesting job – one where you can solve big problems and make a tangible difference to society. I want them so see how satisfying SET professions can be – after over 30 years, I’m still smiling.

For me, being a role model is more than just a title. It’s a responsibility I take very seriously. When you’re fortunate enough to be in the position that I am, you have to be prepared to get involved and give something back. The future of engineering relies on it.

Athene Donald
Dame Athene Donald is Professor of Experimental Physics at the University of Cambridge
Cary Marsh
Cary Marsh is CEO and founder of Mydeo, which enables rich media content on small businesses’ websites to load almost instantly, thus cutting out any frustrating wait for their customers.
Dervilla Mitchell
Trained as a Civil Engineer, Dervilla Mitchell has worked for most of her career as a Structural Engineer. specialising in recent years in the leadership of design teams for large and complex projects at Arup, including Heathrow Terminal 5
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