Encouraging Engineering

Encouraging Engineering

5 December 2021

I remember as a teenager growing up in the North of England proudly studying the Industrial Revolution which had developed my local landscape.

I was fascinated by the amazing engineering feats of the Victorians: the Box Tunnel in Bath designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel, which legend has it was designed so you could see the sun shining all the way through only on his birthday; the Iron Bridge in Staffordshire (that I once requested to go on a detour to see when attending a party); and the sewer and Tube systems in London, which revolutionised our capital city.

Growing up with a step-father who is an engineer has meant that many family holidays have also been given over to the appreciation of more modern engineering feats such as the Seven Mile Bridge in Florida. So as you can imagine when I heard Carl Ennis of Siemens, a fellow northerner even more passionate about the history of British engineering, talk about the importance of getting more women into STEM industries to secure its future at the GSA Conference in Manchester, I was all ears.

He believes that in the light of COP26 and the world‘s commitment to Net Zero, Britain can seize this opportunity to lead the way in a second Industrial Revolution, this time a much greener one! However, the lack of female engineers is saddening. Despite many strides forward, the engineering industry is still not anywhere near gender equal, with only 24% of people working in STEM careers being female. He praised the work girls’ schools are doing in encouraging their students into engineering. However, he went on to say “Girls who have been encouraged, supported and nurtured through school are sent into a world of work that, in some instances, is the binary opposite of what they’d hoped for. In STEM subjects, this can mean male overalls, male safety shoes, male goggles and male workstations.”

Siemens has been working with the GSA for a number of years to address these issues and if we really are to lead the way with a new generation of engineering innovators, there must be female voices at the table. We encourage our students to engage in STEM and particularly look at issues around sustainability: one project looks at making and analysing ionic liquids which will have important green applications as solvents and catalysts; another involves understanding Earth observation, using satellite images to track glacier calving and iceberg formation; and Year 9 Physics are currently looking at reducing heat energy losses from homes and renewable energy sources for electricity production.

At the conference, I also heard from Phoebe Hanson from Force of Nature (a non profit organisation fighting climate change), who talked emotively about the eco-anxiety many of our young people are suffering. She highlighted that 79% of young people feel hopelessness about the climate crisis and 4 out of 10 children don’t want to have children as they don’t know what the world they will bring them into will be like. This is a terrible situation to be in. We need to help our young people to see that there are options for them to make a difference. We want our students to pursue their passions in STEM, to use the confidence they gain here at BGS to take their creative ideas and ability to problem solve out into the world, to make a difference to the future of humankind.

As David Attenborough said: “We often talk of saving the planet, but the truth is that we must do these things to save ourselves. With or without us, the wild will return.” I understand the helplessness young people feel in the face of the climate crisis, but I hope our students will be able to feel positive about the impact they can make by using their intellect and passion for science to reimagine the future of our world.

Gemma Gibson, Headmistress, Bedford Girls’ School 

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