Widening Participation & Changing Society’s Perception — Women in STEM

8th March 2016 in News and Events, Women at Churchill

Robinson College's Women in Science Festival students at the Department of Materials Science & Metallurgy

Churchill has begun to formulate a targeted programme of outreach events to further widen participation from state schools and change perceptions of the career flexibility and opportunities of STEM subject degrees (science, technology, engineering and maths) to further encourage and enable young women to study these subjects at university.

A number of our current students report that visiting the College for events, and particularly staying in College, had a very positive impact in choosing to study at Churchill and Cambridge. Our new portfolio of activities will harness this influence by encouraging Year 12 and 11 students to visit and stay in the college for subject specific workshops. By collaborating with current university and departmental initiatives we hope that the development of these residentials and workshops will have great impact on balancing the gender distribution in the STEM subject at the College and continue to encourage the strong state school applications that we see at Churchill.

Find out more about these events and the University and departments programmes in widening participation.

Churchill connections 

Dr Lisa Jardine-Wright is the Director of Studies for Physics for Churchill undergraduates in their first two years of study and is currently the Co-Director of a National Department for Education funded project to provide key resources for sixth form students and their teachers called isaacphysics.org. Isaac Physics aims to widen participation in physics by supporting students, in particular those who do not have a specialist physics teacher at school, to develop the skills, confidence and enjoyment in problem-solving that will promote and encourage them to go on and study STEM subjects at University. 

UK locations of those using isaacphysics.org in just  the last 30 days

Figure 1: UK locations of those using isaacphysics.org in just  the last 30 days

Through collaboration with the Isaac Physics team Churchill is piloting workshop and residentials to measure the impact that such interventions can have so that initiatives may be rolled out more widely across other subjects. Since its relaunch in September 2015 nearly 20 000 users of isaacphysics.org from more than 1300 schools have answered more than 2,200 000 physics questions (a rate of about 150 000 questions a month).

Cambridge Science Festival

As part of Cambridge Science Festival Churchill College is providing a physics and maths skills workshop for year 12&13 students in parallel with a workshop for parents or guardians on why studying physics and STEM at university offers such great opportunities and prospects. 

Both the student and parent sessions will take place from 7.15pm–8.15pm on Friday 18 March in Churchill College with an opportunity to eat in Churchill College before the event.

Undergraduate Physical Sciences residential for women in STEM

Churchill offers a number of College Open Days throughout the year for prospective undergraduates to visit and we have taken this opportunity to inspire high-performing female sixth-formers to apply to read physical sciences at university. Following the Science Open Day on the 4 April, 30 female students in Year 12 studying physics and maths will stay overnight in College and participate in a physics workshop at the Cavendish Laboratory.

During the open day on 4 April attendees will tour the College, speak with current undergraduates and hear from the senior tutor, admissions tutors and directors of studies about studying at Churchill and in Cambridge. After the usual open day programme is complete, the girls on the residential will have dinner and then join Dr Jardine-Wright for an evening session on the physics of toys and gadgets. The students will work in groups to develop explanations for a number of interesting scientific toys and gadgets. After a restful sleep in a college room followed by breakfast they will make their way to the famous Cavendish Laboratory to partake in practical and problem solving sessions that will be modelled on the Cambridge lecture and supervision system.

University wide – College Area Link Scheme and HE+

The University's Area Links Scheme enables the Cambridge Colleges to build effective, coherent relationships with schools and colleges across the UK and:

HE+ is a collaborative project between the University of Cambridge and its Colleges, working together with groups of state schools and colleges in 14 regions of the UK. In the 2015–16 academic year, 3 000 Year 12 students in over 80 schools and colleges are participating in the initiative.

The HE+ project is unique in that it encourages schools and colleges to collaborate to form regional consortia and to engage their very best students in a sustained year-long programme, including academic extension classes, subject masterclasses, information and guidance sessions, and a visit to the University.

The overall goal of the project is to encourage and prepare more academically-able students to make competitive applications to top universities, including the University of Cambridge.

Churchill College's contribution

Churchill College and Cambridge Admissions Office have nurtured and supported an HE+ consortium in South Wales (one of Churchill’s Area Links), working with seven local sixth forms and facilitated through Gower College Swansea as the consortium hub. In addition to regular monthly extension classes provided by lecturers and teachers from the consortium, Churchill academics also travel to Swansea to provide masterclasses in a variety of subjects such as medicine, law, modern and medieval languages, physics, maths, engineering, history, economics and many more. In return students from the Swansea area travel to Cambridge twice a year to stay in the college and visit the academics in their departments to enjoy practical sessions, lectures and classes.

The College is also addressing the issue of state school student support for widening participation through philanthropy. Thanks to the generosity of alumnus Greg Lock (U66 Nat Sci) and his wife Rosie who have donated £450 000 to create the Greg & Rosie Lock Cambridge Bursaries. The bursaries are specifically targeted to enable state school educated students in Wales, including ideally supporting the goal of 50% of the funds to go towards females studying STEM subjects, to have the opportunity to come to Churchill College and the University of Cambridge.

Changing societal perspectives and the gender landscape

In 2015 the Institute of Physics published a report on an initiative called 'Opening Doors' — a project not specific to physics, or even science, but focused on developing a whole-school approach to addressing gender imbalance. As part of this project they published the following data on the percentage of female students studying various subjects at A-level in the UK.

IOP - Female Entry to A-level subjects in 2013. Chart presented at the IOP “Opening Doors conference" by Professor Peter Main

Click to enlarge. Presented at the IOP “Opening Doors conference" by Professor Peter Main 

The three subjects with the highest percentage of female students (and hence the lowest percentage of male students) were

  1. Performing / expressive arts (88%)
  2. Welsh (82%)
  3. Sociology and art and design subjects (75%)

With psychology (74%), communication studies (73%) and English (72%) not too far behind.

At the other end of the spectrum we see

  1. Computer Science (7%)
  2. Physics (21%)
  3. Further Mathematics (29%)

In comparison mathematics has 39% female students, chemistry (48%) and biology (58%) and within a landscape where 54% of those taken any A-level subject are female (i.e there are more women taking A-levels than men).

To add to this bleak picture 500 out of 3300 state schools send no one on to A-level physics, 1000 states schools send less than 2 students on to A level physics, 400 schools have no specialist physics teacher (including schools that are teaching A-level physics) and 49% of mixed state schools have no girls taking A level physics.

If we are to change this landscape and enable more women to study STEM at university we have to change society’s perspective on physics, maths and computer science and we have to change the gender stereotypes of these subjects (both for the arts and male balance as and for STEM and female balance). 

This is not a UK only phenomenon and there is much active research in understanding these perceptions but two key points have come from recent projects like the opening doors initiative.

To dispel the first of these misconceptions we often make the analogy to playing a musical instrument. There are many excellent musicians with talent but they still need to practice and there are many excellent musicians who have made their name and enjoy their profession through sheer hard work.

We need to dismiss these misconceptions and would appreciate our Alumni’s help in spreading the message that science, technology, engineering and maths can really 'open doors' to a very bright future indeed.


Photo: Robinson College's Women in Science Festival students at the Department of Materials Science & Metallurgy. Courtesy of University of Cambridge.