International Women’s Day: Sara Banning and Helen Sime

Sara Banning is one of our education co-ordinators responsible for STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) community engagement. Helen Sime is our mechanical and electrical delivery manager. They were keen to share why our waterways are a great place for young women to use their maths and science skills.

Helen Sime and Sara Banning Helen Sime and Sara Banning

How can canals teach young people about science and maths?

Helen: The canals can show young people how science and maths influence their everyday lives and the environment around them. The canals are also an example of how the advancement of technology has built the society that we know today via the industrial revolution.

Without these subjects we wouldn’t be able to engineer amazing structures that move or have stayed standing for hundreds of years. 

Can you tell us a bit more about your aim to get more young women interested in science and maths?

Helen: I think the key is to show girls in school the variety of interesting jobs which you can do if you have maths and science qualifications. I think it can be hard for young girls to know what careers are out there and this stops them pursuing certain subjects. For example me, my sister and both of our husbands have engineering qualifications, yet the jobs we do are hugely different (industry, aerospace, motorsport and canals).

Sara: Helen knew from an early age that if she did maths and science she would have lots of interesting opportunities to pick from in the future. We need to make sure more girls get this message and that’s part of what we aim to do through the STEM programme.

It’s still quite early but have you had any thoughts about how you’re going to do this?

Sara: Research has shown that if you take children to a heritage place as a child they are twice as likely to visit as an adult. And we want to get girls from all communities visiting and enjoying our canals.

So we are creating classroom based opportunities for children to discover and understand the scientific and engineering principles behind our canals; and then we’ll take them onto the towpath to see our waterways, the bridges, the cranes; and experience the locks, the ducks and the boats.

Having young volunteers deliver the activities is a key element of the STEM programme. These young people can act as role models help to create a fun and exciting atmosphere to learn new things.  Interacting with older peers can generate a lot of discussion around what they are doing for their A-Levels or what it’s it like studying at university. These informal discussions could be the spark for a child to pursue STEM subjects as further study, and inspire them to consider careers in science and engineering.

Helen: It’s also really important to get to girls when they are young - before they choose their GCSEs, so that they keep their options open.

If girls had access to a network of women who have been successful in science and technology it might give them the confidence to follow this direction for their career, rather than a more traditional route.

Why do you think these have traditionally been ‘boys’ subjects?

Helen: I think it’s a mixture of natural interest, influence within schools, role models and exposure in the outside world. For example, boys and girls are more likely to know a man who works in science and technology than a woman and I think that this can influence them. 

I think that peer pressure can be an issue too, with young women lacking the confidence to be different and not do what their friends are doing. Sadly at the moment I think the pressure on young women to be ‘girly’ is getting worse.

What qualities do you think women can bring to science and engineering roles?

Helen: I think that women can bring exactly the same qualities as men to science and engineering. Personally I’ve never felt that I’m different because I’m a woman and I don’t expect to be treated any differently. I think that this is really important.

For both men and women in engineering I think that an ability to problem solve, be adaptable and communicate well are really important qualities.

Sara: When I see girls play, they often design objects and build places with people in them. It’s about creating stories or scenarios. If we use this play to encourage them to apply what they know about science and technology, they can become really skilled in developing solutions to engineering problems where the ‘human user’ is a significant consideration in the success of a project.  

Last date edited: 6 March 2017