How we can spark girls' interest in Stem subjects

Failing to ensure that technological advance is driven equally by men and women could have dramatic consequences, says Joysy John

girl studying science

The UK will face major problems if our schools can’t make science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem) subjects more appealing.

I can't think of a better time to study Stem subjects. The world is undergoing a technological revolution that will impact every aspect of our lives. The globe is facing a climate crisis that is rising rapidly in the public consciousness. Entrepreneurs such as Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos are pushing the boundaries of space exploration. 

However, while the number of children studying Stem subjects at GCSE and A level is increasing, there is still a way to go. In fact, the overall number of ICT qualifications taken by students across the UK decreased by 45 per cent from 2017 to 2018, according to the Roehampton annual computing education report, released earlier this summer. 

Decline

And the number of hours of computing/ICT taught in secondary schools dropped by 36 per cent from 2012 to 2017, with a further decline in the total numbers of hours of computing taught and qualifications taken expected for 2019. 

I'm especially worried about the lack of girls who are studying these subjects. They are much less likely to pursue Stem at A level, particularly in engineering (14 per cent), computing (15 per cent) and physics (22 per cent). 

And, while all pupils study maths until the age of 16, in 2018 only 39 per cent of girls went on to study A-level maths, and 28 per cent chose further maths. As a trained computer engineer leading Nesta's education strategy, I find this deeply concerning.

Worrying trend

Is it so much of a problem that our young people are not inspired to study Stem subjects? Yes, it's a worrying trend. And, since schools, parents, peers and society at large all play a role in children’s subject choices, it is our shared responsibility. We need to be more encouraging and more creative, and to make these subjects more exciting. If we don’t, it could have dire consequences. 

A lack of interest in Stem subjects means that the next generation of innovators aren’t reaching their full potential. With fewer girls than boys choosing to study Stem subjects at secondary school and university, it also means that design and policy of critical technology, such as artificial intelligence (AI), will be driven mainly by men. This is a troubling prospect, as women make up half of the population and should have a say in the development of technology, in order to ensure that they are fairly represented. Change needs to happen quickly. 

Spark interest

Here's how I think we can turn this problem around and make Stem subjects more appealing at school. First, we have to change the system. We need to look at how the subject is taught and how it can spark interest among students. 

In the US, academic institutions such as Stanford and Berkeley use an interdisciplinary approach to teaching Stem subjects, which has led to more girls studying computer science. Stanford created 10 study tracks for computer-science majors, with options including computational biology, to demonstrate that computing skills can be applied beyond traditional technology jobs and to broaden students' career opportunities. 

Second, framing matters. It's well documented that Generation Z are motivated to tackle the world's biggest challenges. We also know that girls are more likely to be interested in Stem subjects and careers when clear links are made between the subject matter and social good. 

Cracking the code

So we need to find new and exciting ways to empower young people to explore the connection between the ethical debates and challenges that affect the world around them, and how they can solve them using these subjects. One example of this is the Longitude Explorer Prize, aimed to help secondary-school students develop the skills required for the 21st century, by identifying challenges they care about and creating solutions involving AI. 

Thirdly, the private sector and civil society have a role in supporting schools by developing innovative ways to spark interest in Stem subjects, and by reaching as many young people as possible. An example of this is Cracking the Code, a national maths competition that Nesta launched in collaboration with Tata Group and Tata Consulting Services. We have found that competitions that provide opportunities such as these to apply maths in exciting contexts and combined with other important skills, including collaboration and creativity, can support improved attitudes to maths. Interestingly, 59 per cent of the 400 student applicants were girls, suggesting that a creative approach can close the gender gap when it comes to Stem. 

Whatever happens with Brexit, our economy will need to harness the potential of every child, if we're to compete globally. At the core of any such strategy must be a fundamental rethink about how we make Stem subjects interesting, dynamic and, crucially, fun. 

Joysy John is director of education at Nesta

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