How Israel's finest are inspiring our girls to be the scientific geniuses of the future

February 26, 2015 13:49

For the past five years, I have been providing university advice to students and their parents as they navigate their way to and through university, having been head of science at a secondary school. I have advised hundreds of students with their university applications, helping them to choose a course and university and to write the all-important personal statement and am now lucky enough to be director of higher education at Immanuel College.

Throughout that time, parents have most often told me that they wish their son or daughter to study management or a business-related course. The STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) industry, despite massive government investment, seems to have fallen out of favour as a feasible industry in which to work and, ultimately, make money. Although the number of students studying STEM subjects at university, has increased (in 2014 it was 98,000, an 18 per cent rise since 2003), the number of STEM graduates entering STEM jobs had declined dramatically (from approximately half in 2001 to a third 10 years later). Yet the STEM industry offers amazing and worthwhile careers and fundamental scientific research has spawned most of the appliances that currently run shape our lives.

Perhaps the biggest problem in UK STEM today is the lack of women represented. Next week the OECD (the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) which runs PISA (the Programme for International Student Assessment) will publish a report which highlights a huge gender gap (13 percentage points compared to an average of one percentage point) in attainment scores between 15-year-old British girls' and boy's performance in science literacy.

This puts the UK in the bottom five of the 67 countries that take part in the assessments. However, various statisticians have questioned the validity of the methodology and analysis of these tests. Comparing science GCSE results yields a different story: girls outperform boys in science GCSEs.

Whatever measure is used, it is clear that not enough girls do science A-levels, which means that they do not go on to do STEM degrees, and are therefore not well- represented in the STEM industry.

Science still feels like a career that has fallen out of favour

According to various studies, girls' self-esteem and confidence affects how they view their abilities in science, affecting their take-up of STEM subjects post-GCSE. Furthermore, there is a persistent image that study of STEM subjects is for boys not girls. Any way to challenge such outdated stereotypes would give a welcome boost to girls' uptake of STEM A-levels.

I was invited to the Seventh Annual ZF (Zionist Federation) Science Week last month. ZF treated 31 schools (over 660 students) to a free day of Israeli medical science lectures at the Institute of Education in London. The lecture hall was packed with diverse groups of sixth-form students, listening to lectures on ageing and rejuvenation, Alzheimers, genetics and even the importance of sleep on the body - and two thirds of the speakers were women.

It wasn't simply the enthusiasm and inspiration that made the event memorable but also the fact that it was Israel coming to the UK, trying to tell us how to build on the incredible wealth of talent we have at our disposal.

We were once the true pioneers of science - today Israel is proving to be at the forefront of such studies and research. How ironic that it is us now learning from them.

February 26, 2015 13:49

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