If men continue to outnumber women mathematicians, scientists and engineers, society will suffer from a lack of diverse thinking. The GDST has a game plan.
When GDST maths teacher Rebecca Brown tells people what she does for a living, the response is predictable. “People inevitably say, ‘Oh I was rubbish at school.’ Being bad at maths is like a badge of honour.”
But in a technologically driven future, numeracy and a grasp of mathematical concepts will matter more than ever.
“Maths is such a big subject, one of the hardest,” says Brown, “and it’s something that employers really value and respect.” And the skills it nurtures – problem solving, critical thinking, quantitative and analytical thinking – are among those identified as skills for the future by the World Economic Forum.
But without women mathematicians, scientists and engineers, wider representation will remain stubbornly low, with all the problems that a lack of diverse thinking brings at a society level. A grasp of maths is critical for science and engineering careers. But today just 12.37 per cent of UK engineers are women, and under half (46.4 per cent) of girls aged 11 to 14 say they’d consider a career in engineering, compared to 70.3 per cent of boys, according to a report by the Women’s Engineering Society. Female students are also less likely than their male counterparts to say their best subject is a science or maths.
“It’s a national problem,” Brown says. “But the GDST is leading the way.”
Women must have a say in a digital future. For too long men have been the global default customer, as Caroline Criado-Perez lamented in Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men – a book that exposes the ways in which women are excluded and how gender blindness actually harms not only women, but society. Nasa famously cancelled their first ever all-female spacewalk in 2019 because of an ill-fitting space suite designed for a male frame. As a happy contrast, the junior girls at Wimbledon High School – along with other member schools of the GDST – develop to love the subject.
Maths at a GDST school is fun. The students get to build virtual race cars, create and budget for virtual gardens or manage troop deployment during the Second World War – all in the name of maths. You won’t find any of them standing up reciting basic sums – but they do compete in national online competitions to find the whizziest times-table champions.
“I can’t remember the last time I got out a text book in a lesson,” say Brown, who supports and inspires different approaches to maths teaching across GDST junior schools. “We create a social element to maths teaching, and that’s the best way to learn,” she says. “Girls love working together, they grow in confidence.”
When 11-year-old Archana doesn’t understand something, she’s not scared to ask. “Teachers will just explain it in a different way,” she says. “I enjoy maths and numbers – the teachers have made it so interesting.” As a year 6 pupil at Wimbledon High, she’s been busy exploring how maths is applied in daily life, such as how the government budgets during a pandemic and what algebraic formulae are used to calculate the furlough scheme.
“Learning these skills early on is so important. Maths is a cornerstone for so many subjects – it will always be useful”
“I’ve been really impressed,” says her mother Gayathiri, an accountant who wants her daughter to grow up loving maths. And she’s delighted at Archana’s enthusiasm. “Learning skills like that early on is so important. Maths is a cornerstone for so many subjects, it will always be useful.”
Archana also uses her maths skills across the curriculum, applying them to subjects such as geography and history – she’s currently plotting an imaginary island to scale and calculating how it could sustain itself through agriculture and tourism. And this, says her mother, is why she enjoys it. “It’s not a standalone topic. This might make it more of a stretch, but it’s more interesting for her. She’s keen to do the work, it saves me the trouble of having to motivate her!”
There are inspirational ways to teach maths that can dispel any fear of failure. “I had to work really hard at maths myself,” says Brown. “I didn’t have a great teacher and all the while I thought I could teach it so much better. I did a maths degree, and I loved problem solving. That’s what makes me passionate about ensuring everybody loves their maths lesson. We must make sure we instil a love of learning in the girls.”
And this is done in the most engaging ways across GDST schools with events to build enthusiasm. Schools bring parents on board – with lively tips to apply maths at home. “You can spot patterns in everyday life, or chat about fractions with a chocolate bar and so on,” Brown says. At one maths conference, hundreds of girls vied to build the greatest triangles from balloons and share their efforts online; they were in fact exploring fractal patterns, Brown explains.
Something is clearly adding up for the girls: more than half of students (55 per cent) at Wimbledon High School continue with maths after GCSE – well above the 39 per cent of female students nationally who take A-level maths.
While GDST schools celebrate their high achievers, girls who might lack confidence are also nurtured, Brown says. “We do have a lot of girls in our schools who are gifted at maths,” she says. “But being able to create a safe, relaxed environment for learning and dispel fears about maths is so important and so rewarding.”
Over her 13 years in teaching, Brown has seen a huge shift in students’ attitudes towards her favourite subject. “There’s real excitement now around teaching maths. I can’t wait for the next ten years to see how much more changes.”
Article originally published in The Times on 22nd May 2021.Other junior school news