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How do you interest teenage girls in physics and engineering?

12 February 2020
Alison Ward, ICE Education & Inspiration Co-ordinator shows that teenagers are a great audience to work with.
How do you interest teenage girls in physics and engineering?

"Civil engineering isn’t all about maths and physics” - that’s what I tell all our volunteers going to education and inspiration events. It’s all about solving problems to help people. So how do you pitch it when the campaign is called ‘Girls into Physics and Engineering’?

Aimed at 14-15 year old girls (tough audience!) and held in colleges and universities across Scotland, the day’s events (held on the 9 January at Glasgow University) all start with a presentation from an inspirational female speaker. Once the girls are all fired up, they complete a series of 25 minute challenges each demonstrating a different career path that involves physics and/or engineering.

Setting simple challenges

And that’s when it all becomes easy. Civil engineering is such an exciting and varied career that it’s not difficult to get the girls interested. So, we set them a really simple challenge – to build a tower using straws (paper ones of course) to support a golf ball.

The first problem was overcoming their shyness and having to speak to other girls that they’d never met until that morning. Then having to read and interpret a rather vague brief. Could they then remember what they had been learning in school about forces and structures? “My teacher said something about triangles being a really strong shape” – onto the right track there!

With only a limited supply of straws and sellotape could they manage to build a tower that would actually hold the golf ball? And where should it be? The rather vague brief didn’t give them quite enough information, so would they be brave enough to go back to their client (me) and ask for more detail? I’m pleased to say that they did. Every group that took part came up with a different design but every one of them fulfilled their brief. Some more easily than others, some with bigger or more efficient towers but really, that wasn’t the point of the activity.

Communication and problem solving

They needed their physics skills but they also needed so much more. They had to communicate, problem solve and work as a team with complete strangers, not knowing each other’s strengths and weaknesses, working with limited materials and incomplete information. Does that sound familiar?

Yes, civil engineers use physics but it’s just one of the many tools that a successful engineer needs. It’s like baking a cake, if we’ve only got flour, it’s not much of a cake! Our engineers need to apply their technical skills alongside all their other attributes to tackle real world problems with real world people as part of the solution.

Who’s going to help save the planet from the effects of climate change? Who’s going to help fulfill those UN sustainable development goals? And on a more personal level, who makes sure that teenage girls can leave the house looking just the way they want to (straight hair or curly, fake nails or not!)

So, how do you interest teenage girls in physics and engineering? You show them how they can take the wide range of skills that they have and apply them to engineering problems to create solutions that benefit society. Who wouldn’t want to do that?

ICE STEM Ambassadors have access to a wide range of inspiration resources on our online Resource Sharing Centre. To access this or get involved in ICE’s education and inspiration activities in your area please get in touch via email at: [email protected].