Having ambitious vision, creating a strong curriculum and a sense of fun ensures that girls can excel at the sciences, says Dr Felicia Kirk, Headmistress, St Mary’s Calne
Women are woefully under-represented in science university courses and in science careers. A staggeringly low nine per cent of engineers are women. There are huge opportunities for girls in science and I have found that girls love the subject. We know that girls in all-girls school are more likely to take science subjects because in our environment, they are liberated from stereotypes which teach them that science is ‘a boy thing’. Girls consistently do better in science subjects in girls’ schools and they are particularly more likely to study Physics. If we are to address the under-representation of women in science, then we as a girls’ school have a vital role to play in providing a stimulating and inspirational science programme.
The Science Department at St Mary’s Calne has ambitious vision and strong strategic direction. Science teachers are constantly evaluating how they deliver the curriculum, looking for ways to develop the students’ ability to draw links across the disciplines and to gain a deeper understanding of the Big Ideas in Science. Their approach is very individual – they listen to the students to discover their interests and use these to plan both lessons and extra-curricular activities. Space Society and Dissection Club are two examples of this.
“Science teachers want the students not only to be passionate but also to have fun”
The teachers also expose the girls to current scientific research to promote an understanding of the dynamic nature of scientific knowledge. A wide range of science specialists visit the school to give lectures, seminars or to lead small group meetings and National Science Week is an annual highlight, with activities for the girls and the wider community. The teachers have strong partnerships with the Institute of Research in Schools (IRIS), the Microbiology Society and Bristol University to run small-scale research projects in our school that feed in to larger nationwide studies.
They run their own Journal Club which teaches Sixth Formers how to read scientific journal articles, to explore areas of science far beyond the curriculum and, most importantly, to question. This all sounds very serious but our science teachers want the students not only to be passionate but also to have fun. A huge amount of care and attention goes into planning the most exciting and cutting-edge practical work to inspire and challenge the girls – in Year 8, our focus is on engineering. During their Chemistry lessons, the girls learn the principles of separation by extracting oils from a range of aromatic plants, get to grips with carbonate chemistry through the making of bath bombs and are exposed to the nature of transition metals through the making of coloured glass.
I am proud that our Science Department, under the leadership of Alexandra Haydon, is the first among independent schools in the country to be awarded Science Mark’s Platinum Award. The criteria for the award are extremely challenging and require a department to be thinking and operating well beyond what is required to get excellent exams results. They must develop the students’ curiosity and creativity. What made us successful in gaining this prestigious award was openness to trying new ideas, not being afraid of change and seeking feedback so as to further develop and enhance the breadth of science education. We also have belief in the importance of connection between science and other faculties and of course a quest for excellence.