Dame Julia Higgins on promoting science to all

Dame Julia Higgins explains why she is committed to a universal approach to education provision

09 May 2013 / Be the first to comment

As the first woman to become both a Fellow of the Royal Society and The Royal Academy of Engineering, Dame Julia Higgins’ career has taken her to the top of her profession. In recent years, she has used her position to promote science and engineering, especially to women. Now, as a City & Guilds Vice President and FCGI Imperial Advisory Group member, Dame Higgins explains why she is committed to a universal approach to education provision.

When I became Dean of the Engineering Faculty at Imperial my automatic involvement with City & Guilds made me aware of the importance of vocational training. 
When you start being involved, as I have over the last couple of decades, with all sorts of activities and discussions about science education, what you quickly realise is that if you only focus on university and the A-levels people do to get into university, you’re ignoring a very large group of the population. This group is often better suited to an apprenticeship or vocational type training, and we are really letting the country and these young people down if we don’t provide alternative routes for them.

Asking our young people to keep re-sitting GCSEs until they get a pass grade is nonsense and very counter-productive.

It’s become ever more pressing now, as we talk about young people staying on in training or education up to the age of 18, to consider exactly what opportunities we are going to provide. In countries such as Germany, the route into work is equally valued whether the person chose to follow an academic degree route or whether they went for a skills-based training qualification. That kind of attitude has not existed in the UK for over 30 years, and a lot of that is to do with the parents, media coverage and many government policies over the past decade that led people to think that you could only be a success if you went to university.

Imperial College has the ‘Pimlico Connection’ that arranges for undergraduates to spend an afternoon in schools helping with science teaching.
It has gone on for many years and allows undergraduates to not only help with teaching, but to provide role models to young students and to get people excited about doing science and engineering. Many of the Imperial staff do a lot of talking in schools to inspire people who are thinking about doing science or engineering, or maybe who have never thought about doing these kinds of subjects. There is a lot of this type of interaction going on that really focuses on encouraging kids into science. 

There is a perception that engineering is to do with men, and people imagine that science is rather masculine or geeky.
If you ask young kids to draw a scientist they will pretty much always draw an Albert Einstein figure. If you ask them to draw a woman scientist she will be in a white lab coat, glasses and not at all glamorous. It’s important to me that we convince girls that science doesn’t preclude enjoying life, being female and being glamorous – or having a family if they want to. Absolutely key to this are parents; a lot of parents simply do not realise that they’re projecting a very heavily-gendered image to their children. This comes from negative media coverage and the fact that science in mixed gender environments tends to be sold as fast cars and weapons – you need to be as broad as you can about what the sciences are and what the applications are.

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