STEM as I see it

24/08/2016 13:08 | Updated 25 August 2016

Last week, thousands of students like me across the UK went to pick up their A Level results. I've just finished my AS Levels where I studied computing, maths, further maths, chemistry and physics. Even though these are all topics that I'm very passionate about, I'm often still seen as an 'exception' when it comes to subjects 17-year-old girls are studying.

Recently released figures from JCQ show that there's still a significant divide when it comes to the subjects that students like me are choosing - boys still dominate the STEM subjects at A-Level while girls lean towards humanities and performing arts.

STEM has been something that has interested me for a long time, growing up visiting places like the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester, really helped that interest to develop. Events like the Manchester Science Festival also helped to introduce me to groups and communities who would go on to teach me a lot. One of these groups - the Manchester Girl Geeks - were the first to introduce me to programming in a workshop using Codecademy. From there, I've continued teaching myself and tinkering, with help from mentors in the Manchester geek and maker scene.

Finding this community was a turning point for me, and felt like a place I could belong when I wasn't fitting in at school. Not only has it taught me so much about making and computer science, it also provided me with many valuable friendships and opportunities to share my story and new found knowledge with others.

While I've been lucky in falling into these opportunities, and having the support of a great community, a lot of girls my age still feel hesitant when it comes to exploring STEM subjects.

I feel that part of this lies with a perception problem where students, parents (and even teachers) still think of professions such as medicine, dentistry and law as the only 'top' careers. Those are great roads to go down but there's so much more that girls my age can, and should be, considering.

Take computer science as an example. People often think of computer science and ICT as one and the same. However, whereas ICT shows us how to use software, computer science goes one step further in showing you how to solve problems by creating your own programs, for whatever purpose you choose.

Women accounted for only 13% of computing science courses at university in 2014. If we want to shift the numbers, we need to tackle the image crisis and communicate how creative and exciting computer science is much earlier on in the education system.

We also need to break down boundaries when it comes to the curriculum. Schools face increasing pressure from league tables and will often encourage pupils to take up the school's specialist subject at GCSE level. They may also make a language or humanity compulsory for example and, once you've added that to your core maths, English and science, you may only be left with one or two choices. And what this boils down to is choosing one subject but sacrificing another that you might have been interested in. This leaves very little room for students to pursue creative and STEM subjects, leaving students to make a difficult choice which may restrict their options in the future.

At my school, there were maybe only 8 or 9 girls who took further maths at AS Level. Such small numbers are often very difficult to timetable and create restrictions, particularly around uncommon subject combinations. Yet I believe that the best things happen at the boundaries between subjects and that breaking down the harsh lines that define subject areas can lead to exciting new ideas and innovation. For example, new 3D printers that take advantage of the chemistry of the materials they use, to engineer new and useful properties.

For any girls looking to get into a STEM career, I can't stress how important it is to be curious and seek answers, have a go with a Raspberry Pi, CodeBug or Arduino. How does it work? What could I make? What problems can I help to solve? Find a community and learn as much as you can. In my experience people are always so friendly and willing to share knowledge, so don't be afraid to get involved.

On September 2nd I'll be speaking at tech festival Wuthering Bytes about my journey and the importance of community in giving girls the confidence they need to embrace a career in STEM.

Amy Mather will be speaking at Wuthering Bytes in September, a ten-day technology festival taking place in Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire.


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