Collaborating with local school to engage girls with engineering

Collaborating with school to engage girls with engineering

Year 10 students returned to Otago Polytechnic this year to work on a physics lesson within an engineering context.

Joining a pilot Year 9 STEM programme

In 2017, Otago Polytechnic offered local schools the opportunity to bring Year 9 students to a pilot programme aimed at engaging girls with STEM careers while they were still taking maths and science subjects.

Queen’s High School Careers Advisor Lesley Signal looks for opportunities to raise student awareness of non-traditional careers and organised the Year 9 cohort to attend. 
Case study: Engaging students with engineering-related activities

Setting up a successful relationship with teachers and careers advisors

Engineering tutors talked to Lesley and other Queen’s High teachers about engineering careers and how engineering can be contextualised in STEM subjects. Engineering Programmes Advisor John Findlay was keen to establish an ongoing relationship with the school and invited teachers to bring students for extra visits.

“Our growing relationship means that if the school wants us to work with them on something STEM-related, we’ll try to accommodate it.”

John adds that the department hopes to repeat the Year 9 programme with other schools, “in a format which best suits them.”

Contextualising engineering in maths or science lessons

Observing how interested the girls were in watching a material testing demonstration, Maths Teacher Jacqui Spence talked to John about bringing a group of Year 10 Maths students to work on a graphing activity in the materials testing lab.

That idea changed this year, as Queen’s High teachers developed a cross-curricula unit involving Maths, Science, English and Humanities. Physics Teacher Tom Clark took it up and designed a physics lesson around testing materials.

Cross-curricula unit based on Hidden Figures

All Year 10 students are doing the year-long unit, delivered in several three-to-five-week blocks. They started the unit with a viewing of the film Hidden Figures and did work around female role models in fields such as engineering.

“The key thing we want them to take away,” Lesley says, “is that as young women there are no limits on what they can do.”

Engineering pathways and opportunities

During their unit on Space Exploration, the 83 girls made a return visit to the polytechnic. They watched a Skype presentation by Lisa Drysdale, Waikato District Council engineer and New Zealand Board of Engineering Diplomas (NZBED) chairperson.

She spoke about her pathway into engineering via the Bachelor of Engineering Technology and the variety of roles she has worked in. Lisa emphasised that engineering is about problem-solving, that they could work as a generalist of specialist engineer, and that roles can involve: taking responsibility for big projects, working with and helping people, incorporating sustainability into projects, and travel.

Later in the morning, Xi Lin spoke about her career in engineering; she stressed the the range of job and travel opportunities available for engineers, and the training support provided by employers.

Rocket science – evaluation of possible materials

For their Space Exploration unit at school, the students had to obtain data for a metal to evaluate its suitability for use as a grid fin on a Space-X Falcon 9 rocket. This required a visit to the testing labs, with the students divided into small groups for this section.

John discussed how materials are tested for strength, then tested some metals so that students could determine how effective they would be for the rocket. John will visit the school to conduct a melting test on another metal. “Which helps reinforce the school/engineering department relationship and shows that we can run external activities if that suits schools better.”

In another room, Tom ran a lesson in which students had to calculate the density, mass and volume of the metals and measure their radius and diameter with a digital verner. Lesley notes that this lesson made the learning more realistic for the girls – they would take their findings back and apply them to their Space Exploration assignment.

Explaining the difference between engineering qualifications

Back in the lecture room, Matt King, academic leader of the Engineering Department, explained the different engineering qualifications. He compared the polytechnic and university courses and talked about job opportunities and salaries with a two-, three- or four-year qualification.

Matt also discussed his own engineering pathway, which included running space shuttle experiments. He pointed out that an engineer can work for a small or large company or launch their own businesses. All eyes widened when he answered the question about how much could be earned as an entrepreneur!

Developing classroom resources

The Secondary-Tertiary Pathways project team continues to develop curriculum-related classroom STEM lessons delivered in an engineering context.

Last year’s two trial lessons have been written up in a format that is easily transformable for other users. Five resources, including one focused on the Queen’s High School activities, will be made available to other tertiary institutions delivering engineering qualifications.

Case study: Making links and developing resources
Case study: Teaching subjects in an engineering context

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

June 2018