Inspiring the next generation of female STEM students
Research shows that females are more likely than males to form negative emotions about their abilities to perform mathematics or sciences, and that these perceptions take root at a young age. These views are often influenced by stereotypes about gender disparities, and false assumptions that mathematics or science subjects are not for everyone.
To combat these negative perceptions, Dr Houry Melkonian, Senior Lecturer in Mathematics, has established the STEM Beyond Boundaries project. This pilot scheme was supported by Professor Nicola King, Associate Dean for Education in the College of Engineering, Mathematics and Physical Sciences, and aimed to work with schools and colleges to encourage more young females to pursue STEM subjects.
Working in collaboration with the University of Exeter’s Widening Participation and Outreach teams, and aligning with her other projects that also aim to broaden student participation in maths, STEM Beyond Boundaries initially began as a pilot scheme in 2020-21. “This project was created to give young girls the opportunity to learn more about what a degree in STEM looks like,” explained Dr Melkonian. In addition, the project aimed to increase school and college pupils’ awareness of the opportunities for study in this field, providing them with “answers that they may not know”.
Although initially planned as on-campus sessions, the 2020-21 project events were delivered virtually to four schools and colleges over five sessions, engaging pupils from across the country. Designed with a range of activities to engage pupils, the sessions included informative presentations and quizzes covering interdisciplinary topics showing how maths or sciences are an essential part of our daily lives. Pupils then watched short videos created by current undergraduate or postgraduate female students who are studying STEM subjects at the University of Exeter, and who worked as project interns with Dr Melkonian.
Coming from different subject backgrounds within STEM, the interns were able to highlight the broad variety of courses available to students. This was something that one intern felt was particularly important to share with pupils:
STEM is so broad that you are likely to find a degree, apprenticeship or career path in something that really interests you, but this is often hampered by a lack of awareness of what is out there. I hope we helped the pupils to understand the valuable role they could play in the STEM community in the future and gave them the confidence to research what is out there.
The sessions also included a live Q&A session with the project’s student interns. These fruitful discussions provided pupils with invaluable insights into the options available to them, and the interns shared their own experiences in pursuing their academic journeys in STEM.
Feedback from the sessions was positive, and participating schools and colleges were keen to take part in future events. Alongside the benefit to pupils, Dr Melkonian also observed that the project had a great benefit for our Exeter students, as it helped them to develop their personal and professional skills. The interns worked collaboratively, and developed key employability skills by taking responsibility for designing and facilitating the sessions.
As well as sharing their knowledge about STEM pathways, the student interns helped pupils to learn about developing a ‘growth mindset’ during the sessions. This concept, coined by American psychologist Professor Carol Dweck, describes a mindset that better equips individuals to deal with failures, tackle challenges, and receive criticism in a way that helps them to learn and grow from these experiences, increasing their resilience.
The student interns felt this was a valuable part of the sessions for pupils, and acknowledged that it also had a positive impact on their own personal development as students. “The concept to me was eye-opening, and made me reflect on how I can improve my own mindset and behaviours,” one student commented. Another noted that discussing growth mindset with pupils “taught me to have more patience about new academic challenges.”
Looking ahead, Dr Melkonian is now developing the project to run more sessions in 2021-22. Continuing her collaboration with the Widening Participation and Outreach teams, she hopes to be able to bring school and college pupils to the University of Exeter for on-campus sessions, inspiring and informing the next generation of female STEM students.
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