Inspiring the next generation of female STEM leaders

6th February 2019

In 2018 budding female scientists around the world gained two more STEM heroes.

Canadian optical physicist Donna Strickland and American chemical engineer Frances Arnold were named among the most prestigious scientists in the world by claiming two highly coveted Nobel prizes.

Ms Strickland became only the third woman ever to win the Nobel prize in Physics, while Ms Arnold became the fifth woman in history to win the prize in chemistry.

Their landmark wins sparked renewed discussion about the vital role that women can play across the international scientific community, while also helping to potentially inspire a new generation of female scientists globally.

And this boost couldn’t come a minute too soon!

Discussions have increased in the past few years around the lack of female representation in the scientific community and in STEM.

According to figures from the Wise Campaign, which champions gender inclusivity of women in STEM, increasing the number of women working across the industry could be worth around £2 billion to the British economy.

Despite this, a report entitled Talented Women for a Successful Wales, revealed that just 20% of female science graduates pursued a career in STEM, compared to 44% of men.

So, what can be done to encourage women into meaningful scientific roles from an earlier age, and retain them?

Chief executive of Wales’s leading science centre Techniquest is attempting to do just that.

Lesley Kirkpatrick, who has overseen the educational charity since 2016, has made it her mission to diversify Techniquest’s audience and create a scientifically literate society, while encouraging more young women into pursuing “rewarding” STEM roles.

She said: “From my perspective, it is absolutely crucial that we encourage more young women into scientific-based roles in the coming years.

“Not only will this ensure that women are entering rewarding and enriching careers and helping to shape the future of the STEM industry, but it will also make such a significant impact on the future of the economy and plug predicted skills gaps, as we have seen from the Wise Campaign figures.

“At Techniquest, our mission is to encourage greater scientific literacy throughout Wales, and if this enables us to encourage more young women into STEM and narrow the traditional scientific gender divide, then it will be a mission accomplished.”

In a bid to make scientific learning more engaging for younger people, and to reach future generations of female scientists, Techniquest focuses on providing interactive educational experiences at its Cardiff-based centre, through educational schools outreach, its permanent exhibition space, and its annual programmes of events.

Its science centre features two floors of interactive exhibits, along with a varied programme of shows screened in its innovative 360° Planetarium. In a bid to ensure its offering remains engaging and relevant, the centre also hosts a series of educational shows in its Science Theatre throughout the year, along with its hugely successful

After Hours events, which enable visitors to explore the science centre and its exhibits by night.

Mrs Kirkpatrick said: “We think it’s so important to make scientific learning fun and engaging to encourage more young women to pursue a career in STEM-based roles.

“Often we find that young women are simply unaware of the science based careers that are available to them, and the diverse roles that studying a STEM subject could open up for them in the future.

“In order to combat this, we aim to demonstrate how science can be practically applied and the impact it can have in our interactive centre setting. Undertaking engaging educational activities at Techniquest could help to spark a scientific interest in young women across Wales which could lead to them reassessing their future career options.

“We also aim to educate and interact with over 40,000 pupils across Wales via our educational outreach programmes, which bring the fun scientific activities of the centre into the classroom.

“We believe that by doing this we can have a direct impact on the next generation of scientists, and reach out to thousands young women across Wales.”

However, the biggest step Techniquest has taken towards creating a more inclusive learning environment, which could serve to encourage even more young women into STEM, is its major £5.7 million Science Capital project.

The plans would see an extension to the Cardiff-based centre, which would create an additional 905 sq.m. of exhibition floor space.

The larger space will house brand new content related to, and developed with, Welsh science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) innovators, academics and communities.

Mrs Kirkpatrick said: “The Science Capital project is undeniably our biggest undertaking to date, and something we feel will have such a significant impact on scientific literacy and education across Wales.

“Through this major £5.7 million scheme we are aiming to extend and diversify our audience, with a view to making scientific learning more accessible to all, which can only be beneficial to Wales’s STEM future.

“Through this project I am confident that not only will we inspire a new generation of female innovators and scientists, but we will also boost STEM uptake among Wales’s young people overall and create a more scientifically literate Wales.”