By Orna Herr, Communications Officer (Education) at the British Science Association


In September 2023, to help expand education around women’s reproductive health, we released a new Bronze CREST Awards resource pack, Disease, development and diagnostics’ in partnership with Wellcome Centre Human, the Nuffield Department of Women’s Reproductive Health and the University of Oxford. This pack includes projects on periods (with questions about why periods might be seen as taboo) period pain, HPV and cervical cancer, endometriosis and global healthcare during pregnancy.

This was another milestone in the British Science Association’s work to raise awareness of issues surrounding women’s reproductive issues, after we published a blog in May 2021 to mark Menstrual Hygiene Day (which celebrates its 10th anniversary this year!), about education on menstruation and all things related to it.

Roughly half the world’s population have female reproductive organs, will have periods and are likely to be affected by these issues; 80% of people who menstruate experience period pain, 80% will have HPV at some point in their lives and 10% have endometriosis.

The importance of being well-informed on these topics from a young age, and feeling comfortable talking about them to peers, family and healthcare workers cannot be overestimated.

To mark International Day of Action for Women's Health on 28 May, we spoke to Susan Mighall, the Curriculum Lead for Physics and GCSE Combined Science and Stewart Broadbent, Key Stage 3 Science Coordinator, at Rugby High School, an all-girls school in Warwickshire (with a co-ed sixth form) who ran the projects in the resource packs with their Year 9 students. 

They told us about their highlights of running the projects, the students’ enthusiasm for learning the topics and how earning a Bronze CREST Award will help them in the future.

“They’ve all learned something that will help them in later life”

Did completing these CREST projects allow students to discover things that they might not have otherwise? It seems the answer is yes.

Susan explained that while their curriculum covers human reproduction and some work on periods and contraception,

I think there are lots of things in here that the students would never have learned had we not done this project...I’m sure they’ve all learned something that will help them in later life.

Bren Hellier, a STEM Education Consultant at STEM Matters who was part of the development team for the resource, agreed, saying this was one of the goals of the resource:

The project briefs cover a broader range of women’s health issues that students don’t often get the opportunity to explore in detail.

One of the teams completed the ‘It’s a pain’ project, about menstrual cramps. The final presentation includes detailed information about why some women experience pain and the best methods of pain relief. Another team explored the HPV vaccine, explaining the link to cervical cancer and why understanding the vaccine is important.

Jessica, Poppy, Ellie and Jennifer (L-R) of Rugby High School in front of displays of their work

“Through their research, students gain insight into a whole range of science practitioners”

The school had run Bronze CREST Awards before, Susan told us, so when she came across the new project on women’s reproductive health, she was excited to try it.

As we’re a girls’ school I thought it might be useful for the girls to study something that would be relevant to them. Certainly if not now, then in later life. I also thought the different projects within the pack lent themselves to different careers.

The projects were undertaken by students who are about to make their GSCE choices – this is the first time young people have a say in the direction their education takes and potentially begin a path towards a career. Showcasing the variety of roles that engaging with STEM can lead to is particularly important at this age.

Susan continued:

There were projects which they were developing teaching resources, if they wanted to go into teaching and there were NHS roles as well.

Bren echoed Susan’s thoughts on how the six topics could open students’ eyes to careers in the health arena, as well as being connected to their lives.

Through their research, students gain insight into a whole range of science practitioners who work in the field of women’s health, including science communication to public and policy bodies.

“The highlight was…how engaged the students were by the subject material”

After being introduced to the topics covered in the resource booklet, the students were asked to decide which one they wanted to work on over the next six weeks. They were given time to do some background reading on the topics at home, to help them make informed choices and not be swayed by peer pressure.

For Stewart, who ran the lessons during which students worked towards their CREST Awards, this excitement about the freedom to choose their projects was palpable. He told us:

For me the highlight was the beginning and how engaged the students were by the subject material, and how excited they were to actually start researching and finding out about it. That engagement continued throughout.

“…towards the end that changed to an excitement about telling people what they’d done.

“Talking to each other in the group, that builds their level of comfort”

This engagement with the topics is refreshing to hear about; periods, reproduction, sexual health and the issues surrounding them can make for uncomfortable conversation for young people who may not have discussed these things in much depth before.

Stewart didn’t notice much reticence or reluctance to get involved, possibly because of the autonomy students were given and the teamwork nature of the projects:

Most of the students were working either as a pair or in a three…so then having all chosen that activity, they’re talking to their peers about it…by talking to each other in the group, that builds their level of comfort.

The thrill of learning new things that directly related to their lives also propelled students happily through the six weeks of working on their projects, Stewart explained.

I had a group of students who said to me that they didn’t realise that HPV was linked to cancer.

He continued:

There was a definite buzz through the room of people discovering things all the time and feeling that they knew more about it, and that was sort of throughout that they were getting that. You wouldn’t have the sustained interest and enthusiasm without that. The feeling in the classroom was of people discovering things.

The teams created presentations which they gave to the rest of the year group, so students learned about all the topics, not just the one they chose.

“I’m really pleased with the depth and the work they’ve done on this one”  

While completing these projects could help them later on in life in the sense that they will be more informed about their bodies, have a detailed research project under their belts for which they receive a recognised certificate, can give their future education prospects a boost.

Susan told us that some of her GCSE students have applied for an Arkwright Engineering Scholarship, and that part of the application process for this valuable opportunity is discussing a project you have worked on. Past students have used Bronze CREST Awards, and this cohort will have an interesting subject to share.

Having a beefy project in Year 9 has actually been really useful for a lot of our students…this one is really detailed…I’m really pleased with the depth and the work they’ve done on this one.

You cannot give girls too much information about their bodies, or too much confidence to talk about it. This resource gives students the opportunity to take control of their learning - discover how science is part of them, their everyday lives and their futures - and communicate their knowledge effectively.

While Rugby High School is an all-girls school and so the students might have found it easier to relate to the topics, equipping boys with this knowledge too could help to quash the taboo and stigma and create a better future.