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Inspiring children on International Women in Engineering Day

Published: Jun 21, 2021 5 min read

Karen Brunyee

Professional Development Leader

Bootham School

23rd June is International Women in Engineering Day. I know that there are recognition days all the time - but what makes this one particularly special? 

A few years ago, I had the privilege of spending time in a school in a London suburb. The teachers were trying different approaches to engage the girls in the school in STEM. Their teacher shared with me that 95% of the girls in the school did not have a female working role model at home. They students had few future aspirations. Some teachers had started to introduce female STEM Ambassadors into their lessons, assemblies and after school activities. They mentioned that before this, the girls did not see a career in any STEM field for themselves - we always say we don’t know what we can be unless we are shown it. 

After meeting the Ambassadors and taking part in STEM activities, their mindsets started to change and they saw that nothing was out of the question for them. These girls were bright and engaged in their education - but they just didn’t know what was out there for them. 

We don’t even need to look at schools to find such a disparity. Research completed by the Institute of Engineering and Technology - Inspiring the Next Generation of Engineers - showed that many parents do not understand that engineering roles are suitable for their daughters and wouldn’t necessarily encourage them to pursue one. One comment in the report from a parent, after their primary age daughter had attended a number of information sessions, was: “I would probably move it over to the pile for Evie now, now that I know there is such a vast variety of different things that they can do. And it can be a lot more creative. Maybe the school narrow it down too much.”

This report suggests ways to encourage children to see engineering as something for them - and also how to demonstrate to parents the number of different paths and types of engineering roles that exists. Alongside welcoming STEM professionals into school and showcasing the diversity of engineering careers, the most important thing is to get more children engaged in engineering in the classroom. After all, the key focus of engineering is ‘finding solutions to problems, making new things and making things better.’ I think this is definitely something we can all get behind, in all subjects of the curriculum. 

The website for the day has some fantastic resources and videos to share with your children. Their opening statement for the celebration day sums it up: ‘We’re profiling the best, brightest and bravest women in engineering, who recognise a problem, then dare to be part of the solution; who undertake everyday ‘heroics’ as much as emergency ones.' Women like the actress Hedy Lamarr who co-invented an early version of frequency-hopping spread spectrum communication - a pre cursor for WiFi - which was originally intended for torpedo guidance. Ada Lovelace is known as the first woman of computing. Also the women from the early days of NASA, such as Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn and Mary Jackson (seen in the film Hidden Figures) are starting to be studied in school - but there are so many other amazing women engineers that could be explored and shared. 

So where do you start in school to engage your children with engineering? Well a perfect place is the Engineering Habits of Mind which were developed by the Royal Academy of Engineering. These highlight the key skills we all need to engage with engineering challenges, whatever form these take.

Those of you who are familiar with the EYFS will recognise some of these as they closely reflect the Characteristics of Effective Learning, things we would hope to encourage in all children. The STEM website has some excellent links to start introducing engineering into your school.

It has been reported that children who have learned about the work needed to produce vaccines in the last year are now more aware generally of the need to work together and solve problems. By taking hold of this enthusiasm for STEM careers we can show children how they can be the next change-makers. Perhaps introduce them to some of the activities produced by the charity Practical Action. These activities are perfect for class work and also support the aims of the Global Goals, supporting children to be responsible citizens.

The STEM Ambassador programme is wonderful and has made a vast difference to so many children and schools. STEM Ambassadors are volunteers who work within a STEM field who visit schools and share their work, and also support with sessions or careers events. They come from varied areas and all share a passion for supporting children to develop their skills and understanding. If you would like to invite a STEM Ambassador into your school then please visit the link to find out more details and add a request for support.

Engineering is such a powerful tool to engage our children in problem solving, complex thinking and group work and lends itself to so many amazing curriculum supported activities. We really need to be encouraging all children - and the girls especially as they are severely under-represented in STEM careers - to see themselves as future engineers and see it as a rewarding and valuable career choice.