Where it's all rigged up for girls

20th February 2009 at 00:00
Jean McLeish reports on a Skills for Work all-female course at Turriff Academy, aimed at introducing them to engineering

It takes a lot to impress 14-year-old girls, but their mentors from global oil services corporation Schlumberger appear to have pulled it off.

Their teacher calls the pupils "The Energy Girls", an all-female group of S3 students on a Skills for Work energy course at Turriff Academy. The idea is to introduce them to energy and interest them in engineering.

Banff and Buchan College delivers the two-year SQA course at the school, two double periods a week. It is sponsored by Schlumberger, which has also provided two young female members of staff to mentor the girls. This morning, they are making a solar collector, pressure-testing the copper-pipe elements they've assembled, and learning basic plumbing skills. Their mentors, keeping a watchful eye, are Sarita McVicar-Wright, 28, a petrophysicist, and borehole geophysicist Claire Jones, 24.

Jobs in hair and beauty and office administration are popular in this part of rural Aberdeenshire, but their teachers want them to be aware of all the options. "A lot do go to university, but a lot go into areas like nutrition, business management and languages, and we are trying to steer them towards the sciences and engineering courses too," says depute rector Jane Bissett.

Banff and Buchan College offers Skills for Work courses in engineering and construction at 10 schools in the north east and there are no girls on any of the courses. "But this course is called Energy, so there are no pre-conceived ideas of what it's going to be - it's new and it's an all-girls badge on it, so they know they're not competing against boys," explains David Cook, sector manager for technology at Banff and Buchan College.

"Our intention is to follow these girls after they've finished this course to see if it has made any difference to them," Mr Cook adds.

Sarita McVicar-Wright studied geology at Durham University, then taught geography at a secondary school in Cornwall for three years before joining the oil industry two-and-a-half years ago. She spent 18 months offshore, gathering drilling data, and is now working on a PhD in sedimentology. "I think girls can be put off industry and engineering. Certainly, when I went into it, my mates thought I was nuts - 'You're going offshore!'"

But offshore life didn't match up to her friends' fears: "Our culture is relaxed and easy. I had no problems, the guys were all right. You have quite a lot of young guys offshore and it's just like being at university or college," says Sarita.

Her colleague Claire Jones studied geophysics at Edinburgh University: "I found a way in because I was interested in maths and science. There weren't many girls on my course, so it's good to encourage them at this age, to show them the possibilities and that they don't have to go down the more traditional routes of higher education."

Dylan Thomas, recruiting and university relations manager with Schlumberger UK, explains why this project is important to the company. "When people are making a decision about their future, we want to present science and engineering in a good light, using positive female role models," he says.

"As a company, we believe diversity is a cornerstone of what we are - no nationality has a monopoly on good ideas. If you take that into account, if you only employ men, you are only looking at half the good ideas in the world. You need to include women in this process.

"In the UK last year, we recruited about 30 per cent female staff to work in jobs traditionally male-orientated - like drilling oil wells, testing oil wells, the offshore side of things. The next part is to encourage more girls to get into engineering and science."

"I didn't know what to pick for my subjects, so my dad told me about engineering, because he works with engineers. He's a specialist materials controller in the oil industry," says 14-year-old Rachael Hepburn. "I think dad just wants me to do whatever I want. My brother and sister are both materials controllers as well."

Classmate Vicky Mitchell, 14, is from a farming family and is already convinced: "When I am older, I want to be an engineer, probably a design engineer, but I am still deciding. One of my brothers was training to be a mechanical engineer and the other was training to be a civil engineer and he's been looking at design engineering as well."

Vicky has found the women mentors encouraging and positive: "They are teaching us how it's better not to give up, to keep going, even though everybody around you is boys - but don't be intimidated by that."

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