Addressing STEM subject statistics – Teesside High School Sixth Form

Thursday 11 February 2021 | By Samantha Hockney

As the offers continue to come in for our university applicants, it is interesting to look at the STEM figures released by UCAS every year and reflect on these with our own students, who are about to encounter what they mean in reality.

Laura in Year 13 is applying to read engineering at university. In her personal statement she said: “My interest in engineering was sparked a few years ago watching Grand Designs: an eco project that involved building a brick arch as the roof of the house. This had to be calculated; it needed to support itself and not fall, stressing its balance. Soil was placed in the centre of the arch to provide insulation; it had to be carefully tipped on either side at the same time. The amount of precise engineering fascinated me. Whilst looking around various building sites on work experience, I observed how infrastructure was developing. It was really interesting to see the groundworks like the sewers being built, invisible at the end but key for the building to work and remain stable. Inside the site office I learnt about all the different plans and shadowed an architectural technician. I arranged houses, roads and green spaces on a model site paying attention to the positioning of trees. I started designing a two storey house on AutoCAD 2016 learning about the importance of positioning. Both these days gave me an insight into construction.

“Similarly in Physics, I enjoy seeing the theory shine through in practical lessons; taking values from an oscilloscope, performing a calculation before plotting a graph. When I discovered that the calculation wouldn’t work for all my values due to the limitation of ln(x), I had to evaluate what data I was measuring and then repeat the experiment. I love using prototypes and experimenting until I can succeed with a design or a project.”

I asked Laura about her thoughts on the fact that, while the number of girls studying STEM subjects at A-level has recently overtaken boys nationally, by a narrow margin, those studying engineering at university will still find 81 men on the course for every 19 women.

“Engineering is still perceived as a male profession,“ Laura said. “It is still not commonplace to see women out on building sites with hard hats and boots. I was conscious that more males than females apply to study engineering, but THS Sixth Form has strong female role models and representation in STEM subjects is high. In fact most of our STEM subject teachers are female. I think school has certainly encouraged me to apply for engineering. I feel very positive: even if only 8% of engineers in the workforce are female, I’m not intimidated, it actually encourages me to help redress the balance.”

Head Girl Eva’s ambition is to read medicine at Manchester University. Eva explained in her personal statement: “My decision to pursue medicine is not the result of a life-changing experience or childhood dream, but an accumulation of experience. A combination of studying anatomy and physiology in Biology lessons, my growing intellectual curiosity and scientific skills have made me feel determined that this is the best way I can make a contribution to the human condition of mortality.

“A-level Chemistry has developed my logical and analytical skills, through techniques such as deducing formulae by IR spectroscopy, and when I performed my first dissection in a GCSE Biology lesson, holding a heart in my hands, the beating soul of a body, it gave me a greater appreciation for the complexity of the human. Further studies of the organ system taught me about the interaction and relationship between organs; if one stopped working, the whole system would stop. I realised that the organ system is not a machine or a series of chemical processes, but something that contains human consciousness within it. Though each organ has its role they function as one system, much in the same way medics work individually, but function as part of a multidisciplinary team. Medicine is not simply about analysing data and finding an illness or treatment; it requires a human connection and the ability to treat the person as well as the illness. Kate Granger’s book showed me how patients feel when doctors discuss the disease rather than addressing the person. Paul Kalanithi’s book, where he continues to work as a doctor, adjusting to the role of a lung cancer patient, highlighted the empathy and the knowledge dynamic when the doctor/patient role is reversed.”

I asked Eva whether she felt surprised that there are now slightly more girls than boys studying A-level science nationally. She said “That statistic doesn’t really surprise me; over recent years there’s definitely been a lot more focus on women in STEM and that begins in school. Girls are being encouraged to take science subjects and not feel limited in their aspirations, even if they’re for a currently male-dominated field. It’s great to see girls taking the same opportunities that have been historically handed to boys.”

I recalled asking an academic, when I was an undergraduate myself at Durham, about female representation in the department, and being told there were plenty of women involved in the department – as cleaners and secretaries! Surely times have changed, and our students are moving into a more gender-balanced undergraduate experience? In medical schools there has been a noticeable shift, with 65% of medical students now women. I asked Eva whether this change mattered to her, and she quite rightly pointed out that this disparity was still apparent in the workplace, no matter what changes were underway at university level. She added: “Of course, current statistics show that the medical field is still greatly male-oriented; though overall there is somewhat of a balance, with 47% of registered medical practitioners being female. However in 2020, 88% of surgeons were male, and the only specialties in which women dominate are public health roles and ‘female’ areas such as gynaecology. An increase of women in medical schools shows that there is progression in the right direction, and it gives me hope that in the future there will be more of an equal spread within all specialties and aspects of medicine.”

As Head of Sixth Form, it also gives me hope; that our students can interrogate statistics and ask pertinent questions of the society into which they are about to step.

Miss J Bird