Engaging girls with engineering-related activities


Otago Polytechnic is trialling engineering-related NCEA lessons in schools and ran a pilot two-day programme for Year 9 students which included an engineering section.

Pilot Year 9 programme designed to show different career pathways

Otago Polytechnic launched a pilot Year 9 programme in Term 4. Designed to give students some experience in different career pathways, it comprised four sessions held over two days. All Year 9 students at Queen’s High School attended the programme at the polytech, rotating around the four study areas in groups of 20. Engineering Programmes Advisor John Findlay ran the engineering sessions.

Getting girls to look beyond traditional roles

Queen’s High School Careers Advisor Lesley Signal looks for opportunities to expose students to careers they may be unaware of, and encourages them to look beyond traditional roles for women. Lesley and teaching staff are particularly concerned that their students don’t rule themselves out of potential careers by dropping STEM subjects too early.

"We want to engage the girls more fully with Maths and Science now, so they take everything they can from their Year 10 courses.  This will allow them to flourish in the senior school.  They need to be more fully aware of the potential applications of Maths and Science knowledge and skills in their future lives."

STEAM – Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Maths

John talked to the students about what’s involved in engineering, and the place for Art which makes STEM into STEAM. He emphasised the importance of communication skills and creativity in engineering, and the opportunities for women in the sector.

During his presentation, John showed a video clip about architectural ‘fails’ as an example of why engineers need to collaborate with architects and designers on a project. Students watched another clip about crash testing cars, to show how engineers consider the elasticity of materials and why they might need to test materials in the lab.

Visiting the materials testing lab

Students visited one of the laboratories to find out about how the materials testing machine is used to test materials to failure, although time constraints meant John could only do one test. Students were fascinated as they watched a piece of steel stretched to breaking point.

Planning a maths lesson around materials testing

Jacqui Spence, head of the Maths department, is always looking for activities to engage students with maths. and show them how those skills are applied in industry. Observing the high level of interest in the materials testing machine, and with John’s invitation to bring students into the lab, she is now planning a new maths activity.

Jacqui and John will develop a lesson in which students will test materials and graph the results, with students able to be assessed towards an NCEA maths achievement standard.

Spaghetti tower challenge

Back in the classroom, the students were given a tower challenge. Using spaghetti and tape, they worked in groups to construct the highest tower strong enough to hold a marshmallow on top. In addition to structural engineering skills, one group of students incorporated cost-effectiveness into their design – saving on materials by using only a portion of the marshmallow. This resulted in a good use of communication skills, as students defended or attacked this interpretation of the rules!

Taking the learning back to school

Queen’s High teachers had planned a Year 9 tower challenge – using multiple materials – back at school the next day. This allowed students to immediately apply what they’d learnt about structures and teamwork to a new challenge.

Staff have just begun to develop a cross-curricular Year 10 unit based around the film Hidden Figures (about African American female mathematicians working for NASA). It will involve the Maths, Humanities, English and Science departments. Teachers plan to link with John again to revisit aspects of engineering, such as testing metals, as part of the unit. 

Trialling a Level 1 Maths resource at Kaikorai Valley High School

The Secondary-Tertiary Pathways Project team trialled another Maths activity in Term 4. Kaikorai Valley High School Year 11 students worked on a maths activity related to engineering and farming. Students had to lay out a paddock – surveying around the school area, and calculating points using geometry then theodolites – and were assessed towards NCEA Achievement Standard AS91033 (Construction and Geometry).

Maths teacher Steve Murphy says it was an extremely successful venture, with 17 of 19 students gaining the standard, with some high calibre work being produced. “It was an extremely useful activity, with our students seeing a mathematician in action and working with a simulation of a differential equation.”

“We ran through the maths back in the classroom, further enhancing their introduction to differential calculus.”

Steve plans to work with Otago Polytechnic again next year, with activities planned for Year 11, 12 and 13 students. He notes that this type of curriculum-focused interaction engages students and works well with integrated units.

Embedding maths resource into school curriculum

Otago Boys’ High School had postponed a trial Year 12 combined Maths and Physics teaching until next year. The school has since decided to embed these activities into the Maths/Physics curriculum rather than doing them as ‘add-ons’. John is currently working with teachers on a timetable for next year.

Principals keen for students to use EPICentre

A group of Otago Secondary-Tertiary College principals recently visited the polytechnic’s EPICentre – a multidisciplinary workshop with facility for laser cutting and 3D printing. The principals were enthusiastic about potential opportunities for their students to use the centre, and a follow-up visit for Technology, Maths and Science teachers was also well received.

Planning a Year 12/13 programme

Plans for a Year 12/13 Engineering programme –  in which students would work towards a New Zealand Diploma in Engineering paper and NCEA achievement standards – are still underway. The programme was initially envisaged as a weekly two-day course but, says John, this structure can be a challenge for schools. The team is now looking at whether to offer the programme as a block course.

“We’re also keen to make this a part of the Otago Secondary Tertiary College (previously the Trades Academy).  It currently focuses on the trades, but maybe we could introduce a higher level of education.”

Developing a Dunedin Week of Engineering

John is interested in recruiting local engineering and technology employers to be involved in the 2018 Week of Engineering. Launched in Wellington in 2016, this initiative was rolled out to Auckland and Christchurch this year. “I’m thinking we could use the publicity around next year’s Week of Engineering to run some smaller events in Dunedin. It’s a great way to show students the variety of roles that engineers work in, and to highlight the local opportunities for engineers.”
Week of Engineering 2016

Our thanks to John, Lesley, Jacqui and Steve for their time and advice; if you have any queries please contact

December 2017