A bright future for female engineers

18th July 2014 at 01:00
Energy sector course for teen girls is growing in popularity

An all-female college course designed to inspire young women to enter careers in the energy sector is going from strength to strength, having almost doubled in size in a year.

In the coming academic year, North East Scotland College will host 82 female students aged 14-17 from eight schools, compared with 45 students from five schools last year. When the course - entitled "Skills for work: energy"- was run for the first time in 2008-09, it involved only a dozen students, all from the same school.

Women continue to be under-represented in the study of science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem) subjects at Scottish colleges and in related careers. According to the 2013 skills survey by the Institution of Engineering and Technology, only 7 per cent of the engineering workforce is female. At North East Scotland College, the proportion of female engineering students is significantly above the national average but still only one in five.

Last week, TESS reported on a speech by University of Glasgow psychologist Dr Gijsbert Stoet, who told a major research conference that schools should abandon efforts to attract more girls into physics, computing and engineering because those with an aptitude for such subjects would choose them anyway (" `Give up on the idea of female engineers' ", 11 July).

Effort was wasted trying to bridge gender divides in education when innate differences meant that boys and girls would always be drawn to different subjects and careers, Dr Stoet claimed.

But Rob Wallen, principal of North East Scotland College, said that many of the 2014-15 female-only class would become "our engineers of tomorrow".

"The course has been designed to encourage more females to consider a science, technology, engineering and maths-related career," he explained. "There remains a skills shortage in this area and typically you will still find that women are in the minority in these sectors. It's incumbent upon education and industry to work together to promote the variety of opportunities on offer and attract women into these roles."

The year-long course is timetabled into the girls' normal school day and combines classroom study, workshops, an annual conference and industry visits to a variety of employers, where the young women can meet other female workers.

The curriculum covers solar and wind energy, oil and gas extraction and the national grid, giving a broad introduction to the sector and the career opportunities it provides. The students work towards a National 5 qualification and also get an opportunity to participate in a summer work placement at Shell - one of the industry partners that sponsors the course.

In previous years, more than half of the students enrolled on the course either went on to study engineering or found employment in the sector.

Isobel Davidson, chair of Aberdeenshire Council's education, learning and leisure committee, told TESS she was "really pleased" with the programme's success. As the energy sector was such a crucial part of the economy in the area, getting girls into Stem was especially important, she added. She said she hoped resources would be found to develop the scheme even further.

Jenny Laing, Aberdeen City Council leader and convenor of its education, culture and sport committee, said young people sometimes had preconceived ideas of what working in the energy industry would be like. It was important, she said, to provide young people with information on the wide range of careers in the sector, so they could make an informed decision.

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