Science for all
In the same way that we promote 'sport for all’ we believe in ‘science for all’: every student should be able to enjoy and see the value of her scientific studies. We accept that not every girl will revel in learning about photosynthesis or memorising the periodic table but, even so, there are specific aspects of scientific learning – such as setting and testing a hypothesis, conducting fair tests, and learning to analyse critically findings and interpret data – that can be applied across the range of academic disciplines at school and beyond, in the workplace. It is therefore vital that all students have the opportunity to develop these skills, and see their value and real world applications, ahead of selecting their GCSE and A Level options and subsequently settling on a particular path at university or via an apprenticeship.
Our excellent Science department does this by engaging the girls in their learning, weaving together theoretical understanding and retention of essential information with development of these key skills. Our Head of Science, Dr Cristina Alves Martins, explains:
“Practical work is at times used to demonstrate the theory learnt in previous lessons, and at other times practical work is conducted to lead students onto finding out for themselves the theoretical facts”.
There has been a lot of focus nationally on encouraging girls to continue studying the sciences beyond GCSE level, and it has been suggested in much of the research that for girls to choose to study science at A Level and at university, either as a pure or an applied discipline, they need to be emotionally engaged with the subject, and able to see its direct relevance to humanitarian and environmental problems. In order to address this, Mrs Tessa Shercliff, our STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) co-ordinator, has developed a dedicated programme of STEM-focused activities – for Reception pupils through to students in the Upper Sixth – which encourage the girls to start thinking critically about different class topic-based situations and the ways in which they could use what they have learnt in science to design and build solutions to common problems.
This term Year 1 and Year 4 pupils have taken part in Mrs Shercliff’s STEM projects. The pupils cover their science curriculum topic through practical, hands-on activities and investigations, and use some of what they have learnt to inspire them to design and build something associated with the curriculum topic. For example, the Year 1 class topic is clothes, and the girls’ STEM focus has been on the technology of fabrics. They have learnt about careful observation, using magnifying glasses to examine how fibres had been put together in woven, knitted and felted fabrics. They looked at each of these manufacturing processes in turn, made a piece of woven fabric using peg looms, undertook paper weaving, made bracelets by braiding, and then built their own French knitting looms. The Year 4 class topic this term is The Tudors, and the group’s science topic is sound. After several lessons exploring the science of sound – through careful listening observation and investigation into vibrations, pitch, volume, and the way sound travels – the girls designed their own instruments, inspired by Tudor musical instruments. Our very youngest pupils are still working out much of the world around them on a daily basis, and are still forming opinions about the way things work, the way things should be, and the way things could be.
By incorporating STEM learning into the girls’ class topics, we are supporting them in developing an understanding of how interconnected the world around them is, so that, for instance, in a Geography lesson they see the interplay of historical events, cultural factors, scientific developments, and so on.
Continuing on from the STEM programme at the Junior School, the Year 7 curriculum has been designed to enable students to spend 80 percent of their time conducting practical work and developing essential scientific skills, as opposed to simply focusing on acquiring knowledge. Not only does this help to ensure that the girls are enjoying their formal science lessons in their new Senior School surroundings, but it also ensures that an appropriate emphasis is given to developing scientific skills. For instance, throughout Year 7, the girls work through a series of practical procedures involving hydrogels, and progress from initially following simple experimental instructions and recording data, to being able to manipulate data, plot graphs and draw conclusions.
I am sure that many of my generation will remember conducting science experiments at school and finding, on occasion, some frustration in analysing the results because of having made errors in recording, or not being specific enough in describing what occurred. Today, students use iPads to video and photograph their investigations, which enables them to hone their observational and analytical skills as they have more time to review and discuss their results and suggest improvements to the methodologies they have employed. This also means that some elements of frustration can be ameliorated, which enables students to remain more engaged with their learning. For example, in Senior School electromagnetic induction experiments, where the needle of a voltmeter moves incredibly fast to allow accurate readings, videoing the meter means that students are able to slow down the video and look at each frame individually and make accurate readings. Upper Sixth students have undertaken a mechanics practical task on momentum, during which videos of collisions were made and readings of angles at which the colliding spheres moved off were more easily measured.
Mrs Shercliff’s Senior School STEM projects are also conducted via a number of different extra-curricular clubs, through which the girls apply scientific theory to solve problems, and design and build a range of creations. By doing so in extra-curricular environments in which the girls have ownership of their projects and are encouraged to consider for themselves what they might like to create, students are able to take on a mind-set of identifying a need or a problem, and considering different practical ways to try to create a solution. The girls work on individual projects in Hacksaw Club (for Year 7 students), for instance designing and building electronically powered ‘vehicles’; in the Young Engineers club teams of students in Year 8 to Year 10 design and build mechanical arms powered by hydraulic systems (which have appealing links to medical applications). The Upper School Raving Robots club enables the girls to combine mechanical design with programming, and Upper Sixth students have been working on their own projects, including developing a machine to solve a Rubik’s Cube, and developing their own mechanical arms to compare with the Young Engineers’ creations.
These experiences will ingrain in the girls’ minds the idea that, through STEM subjects, practical solutions can be developed – and that they are as likely as the next person to be the one to do so.
We are always pleased to see a higher than national average number of our girls go on to take sciences and applied sciences at Higher Education. Engineering is just one example of science applied to the real world and, as you may already know, we were delighted last summer to see five of our Sixth Form leavers head off to read different engineering courses at university – from Energy Engineering to Architectural Engineering. A number of our current Upper Sixth students are planning to read Chemical Engineering next year, for example, Honora D. wishes to not only be a female engineer in what can be a male-dominated environment, but to use her training specifically to help protect the environment.
In order to play our part in getting more girls to consider science after GCSE and beyond the walls of our school, we are going to be inviting Senior School students from Year 9 upwards to participate in a national STEMM Award next year (the additional final ‘M’ represents a desire to highlight the links between STEM and Medicine). This is a very exciting award, similar in many ways to the well-known Duke of Edinburgh’s Award scheme, and can be taken at Bronze, Silver, and Gold levels. It encourages a broad range of skills to be developed, and activities and service elements to be undertaken (in addition to the perhaps more recognisable task of researching and completing a scientific project). Of particular note are the ‘science communication’ and ‘advocacy’ elements of the Award, which will prompt students to enter the realm of science evangelism, encouraging others to consider a future in science by sharing their own enthusiasm! Students will participate in the Award during Tuesday afternoons as part of our school-wide extra-curricular programme. Please do make contact with Dr Alves Martins or myself – or invite your daughters to – for any more information about the Award or any aspect of our science provision.