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Rethink needed on how STEM subjects are taught to girls

Liz Towns-Andrews, the CEO of the 3M Buckley Innovation Centre (3M BIC) in Huddersfield. '20th September 2018.
Liz Towns-Andrews, the CEO of the 3M Buckley Innovation Centre (3M BIC) in Huddersfield. '20th September 2018.
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A rethink is needed on how science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects are taught in schools in order for them to appeal to girls, according to the boss of a leading innovation centre.

Professor Liz Towns-Andrews, CEO of the 3M Buckley Innovation Centre (BIC) in Huddersfield, believes that teaching needs to showcase science in a more applied way that is of relevance to girls.

She said: “What makes it cool to boys quite often is communicating engineering in the terms of Formula One or High Speed Rail.

“If a vehicle could be found that girls are engaged with, perhaps through more creative disciplines like music, that would help.”

The STEM acronym needs to be changed, Professor Liz Towns-Andrews says.

“I’m adamant that STEM is not the future,” she said. “STEAM, science technology engineering arts and mathematics, is the future.”

Professor Towns-Andrews, who is a trained chemist, recently ran a workshop which taught girls, aged 11 and 12 years old, how to solder a printed circuit board.

“When they finished it they then used that printed circuit board, stuck it in a computer and played music,” Professor Towns-Andrews said.

She added: “It was a way of engaging them, through music, in science and technology. You could do the same with photography for example.

“It could even be, from a chemistry point of view, the science of cosmetics but we need to showcase science in a more applied way that is of relevance to girls rather than just boys.”

Professor Towns-Andrews doesn’t believe teaching of science and technology in schools has changed much since she was at school in the 70s.

Perceptions need to change about the engineering industry, the academic says, with too many still believing it to be traditional blue collar work. She said: “Increasingly as we move towards digital manufacturing and Industry 4.0 (trend of automation), it’s more about computers and digital technology.

“It doesn’t matter whether you’re a girl or a boy. It’s not blue collar anymore. It’s moving towards white collar. You need the diversity as well. We need more girls in engineering.”

Speaking about her own experiences at school, Professor Towns-Andrews said she used to get teased for being a “geek”.

Despite this lots of girls did do science at school but that plummeted once she got to university.

“In my whole year there were probably only six girls doing chemistry,” Professor Towns-Andrews said. “It was quite strange.”

The academic went on to join a research council and worked on a synchrotron, a large and high powered x-ray machine.

She then became a director of innovation and knowledge transfer for the Science and Technology Facilities Council. Professor Towns-Andrews developed an interest in how science and technology could be better utilised to the advantage of businesses.

She joined Huddersfield University in 2009 and became director of research and enterprise as well as being given a free hand to set up the innovation centre, to bring business and academia together.

The 3M BIC is home to innovative businesses from various sectors and this year celebrates its fifth anniversary. It gives smaller firms access to technology that would otherwise be out of their reach.

In honour of chairman

Manufacturing giant 3M bought the naming rights to the innovation centre in honour of its former chairman and chief executive Sir George Buckley. Sir George is an alumni of Huddersfield University and the building was named after him as a retirement present.

As well as having companies based at the centre, 3M BIC offers hot desking facilities. Professor Liz Towns-Andrews said: “This is the front door to everything the university has got to offer to support your business to grow. You don’t need to try and knock on the university door or find the right place to find the expert. We’ll do it for you.”