#GirlsInSTEM – Edinburgh

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Reserved seat next to Angela Constance MSP! Copyright photograph by Mike Wilkinson. mike@mike-wilkinson.com http://www.mike-wilkinson.com http://mike-wilkinson.photoshelter.com

The week before last I found myself in Edinburgh on a beautiful sunny morning, walking to the National Museum of Scotland. As I made my way from Haymarket Station, past the University of Edinburgh, and up to the National Museum of Scotland, my mind wandered to all of the incredible inventions and inventors which came out of this fantastic city – the Stevensons and their lighthouses (engineering marvels!), James Clerk Maxwell and his radio waves, and even Prof. Steven Salter and his wave energy converters. How the Scots invented the modern world… indeed!

It was a fitting start to the day, as I’d been invited to participate in one of Accenture UK’s Girls in STEM events, run in partnership with STEMettes as a closing plenary speaker to an audience of 140 11-15 year old girls. I was a little anxious – the rest of the panel taking part in the day were an incredible bunch of women in science and engineering, doing amazing things. ClydeSpace’s Jennie Doonan, for example, has built things which are now in space!

Trying to keep the classic ‘impostor syndrome’ at bay, I met the other ladies on the “Women in STEM” panel, and some of the other Accenture organisers over coffee before the students arrived. What always occurs to me is that regardless of career level, events like this are real levelers… we are all just people, at various stages in our lives, trying to pursue the careers we love, and enjoy the lives we have outside of them. That, and everyone was incredibly friendly!A few minutes later, the noise levels in the hallway downstairs increased, and… you guessed it! Our audience had arrived!

As they filed into the auditorium, chattering merrily to each other, so did we… also chatting to each other. Bill Macdonald, Scotland Managing Director for Accenture UK gave a lovely talk, and showed the girls a brilliant video about where STEM subjects can take you. With and from Italian astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti (she spent 199 days in space!), lots of robots, and other cool science, I was feeling totally inspired already – and it wasn’t even 11 am!

The panel then took their place, and Bill invited a few girls up to ask the panel some questions. “What inspired you to do your job?” “What subjects did you take at school?” “What do you do outside of your job?”. But by far the best question of the day was: “What is the biggest mistake you ever made?”.

Some of these ladies had made some good mistakes! Designing a circuit, then ordering a batch of them, only to find they didn’t work was pretty good, but Jenni had accidentally pointed a huge satellite dish away from the satellites it was communicating with, bringing systems to a halt and leaving her (at the time) much more experienced colleagues wondering what on earth had gone wrong. She had to put her hand up and admit that she’d made a mistake. I know we all make mistakes, but that really brought it home to me – we all really do make mistakes, and sometimes really big ones! But we also recover and learn from them, and often end up more resilient and better off for them.

After the panel the girls headed off upstairs to start the activities led by STEMettes. In teams of five or six there were a few little ice-breaker competitions. Which team knew the most languages? I was amazed – one team had eleven languages! Eleven! What a diverse group of girls we had! They also had to make up rock band, complete with a name, hit single, and signature move – I wish I could remember more of the names, but they were mostly science-y and really good!

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Angela Constance MSP at Girls in STEM. Copyright photograph by Mike Wilkinson. mike@mike-wilkinson.com http://www.mike-wilkinson.com http://mike-wilkinson.photoshelter.com

Angela Constance MSP, Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning also dropped in, and gave a fascinating, inspiring talk about all of the unsung Scottish heroes of science and engineering¬† – all women. I didn’t know more than a handful of them – and definitely have a few more to look up! For me, it was nice to see the minister again, and I definitely support their initiatives to encourage girls and women in STEM in Scotland. Hopefully I can do more over the next year, looking forward to Homeward Bound and Antarctica in December.

Then came the hack-a-thon, teaching the girls how to code. Teams of two got a laptop and had to use JavaScript to battle it out against other teams of two in a game of robot warfare. The robots were driven by lines of code, which told them where to go and what move to make against the competition. I wish we’d had that at school! Much, much more fun (and more intuitive!) than LOGO and driving a turtle cursor around a screen. The competition was fierce, and much more so with the knowledge that a really good prize would be awarded to the winners. When the internet broke down for a few minutes, preventing play, I overheard one team say “but this is really stressful! we want to keep playing because other teams are winning and we can’t play anyone right now and they might win the prize!”. Brilliant! Hats off to STEMettes for being so engaging!

With the winners settled, and tablet PC prizes given out… it was my turn. What could I say to top off what was already an inspiring day for STEM? A bit of inspiration, a bit of fun, a bit of my story, and a message to take home – I hoped! So up I got, in front of the audience, and went for it.

The time went so quickly – before I knew it I’d reached the end of what I wanted to say. Psychologists call it ‘Flow’ – when you are concentrating and fully engaged in what you are doing, and at your best and most creative. That’s how I felt talking about science, why I love it, and why I want to help more people to become involved with it. We don’t all need to become scientists, but encouraging more and better engagement with science can really benefit us all. It’s not scary, is what I wanted to say, though I was scared of math when I was at school (not any more!). Science takes you places and helps you to understand the world around you. Science, technology, engineering, and maths are so essential to modern life and so entwined with everything we do.¬† We simply can’t afford not to be engaged. Science opens doors. And if I inspired even just one of those girls to step up to that door, turn the key, and open it, then I will have succeeded.

A brilliant day, and a huge thank-you is due to the organizers, Accenture Tech UK and STEMettes, all of the Accenture volunteers, the totally inspiring panel of amazing women in STEM, and all of the girls who came along. Let’s hope there are more like this to come!