Ada and Annabel: getting girls into STEM

This Tuesday marked Ada Lovelace day – a global celebration of the achievements of women in science, technology, engineering and maths.

Ada Lovelace and Dr Annabel Latham

Ada Lovelace and Dr Annabel Latham

Inspired by the trail-blazing nineteenth-century scientist - who is often referred to as the 'prophet of the computer age' - Dr Annabel Latham in the Department of Computing and Mathematics shares her tips for getting girls into STEM:

Challenge Stereotypes

A lot of the problem starts with gender stereotypes – and as we know this can start as babies, but no matter how careful parents are in balancing toys, clothes and activities, many girls (including my own daughter) gravitate towards finding their identity based on messages from media, friends, school teachers, family. So while I don’t think we should challenge girls in what they want to do, we can certainly add in positive messages and I think these can start quite early. There are lots of ways to challenge stereotypes in schools – put up posters showing women doing STEM jobs (we have developed some for IEEE UK and Ireland Women in Engineering), invite STEM parents in to talk about their job, after-school clubs, basic programming challenges, etc. There are other things we can all do to

Ask Questions

Questions are a great way to start people thinking about the importance of technology - ask small children (and older ones) about how they think things work – the iPad, the TV, netFlix – how does it know what things you like to watch? Why do you like that game and not the other one – what would you do differently? How do you think we will watch TV in the future? Questions can stimulate interest in STEM and also the idea of having a stake in the future.

Talk about what you do

If you’re a STEM Woman, talk about what you do – to everyone not just girls! I talk to people old and young, I talk about how important I think it is to have women in STEM, helping design our shared future, I have to put myself out there as an ambassador for STEM because I really believe that the future should belong to both genders, and we should all have a say. The more shared understanding of what we mean by STEM, what different jobs involve, how it affects our daily lives and the more visible women are as STEM workers, the more the cultural messages will slowly evolve.. I hope! I was once talking to someone about her role as scout leader managing the digital badges. She thought she could make more impact changing to brownies so she was a visible role model for girls – and I strongly disagreed because it’s just as important for boys to see that women know about technology.

Get involved in STEM activities

Take family and friends along to Science week exhibitions, university open events, science museums, etc – they will all have things to try out and get involved in – who doesn’t love trying to control a wheelchair with your eyes or watching a robot dance? You can even do things at home if you have the patience – from building towers from spaghetti to programming a ‘human robot’ – volunteer yourself to be the robot doing the actions your children programme for you – give them a challenge of getting you from a chair to the biscuit tin!

At the end of the day, I believe STEM is fun and I love being able to share this fun with others of all ages. It’s a big battle against peer pressure at school, choosing the ‘right’ subjects to study, but at the end of the day if girls don’t see STEM as fun, why would they choose it?

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