A teacher inspiring girls to study science and tech

Meet Wesley van Oort-Strang. Wesley is a science and tech teacher at Grotius College in Delft, Netherlands (member of the UNESCO Associated Schools Network) and at the Teacher Training Institution of Rotterdam University of Applied Sciences. She teaches technical studies, mathematics and IT, and has set up extracurricular activities such as robotics programming, wood and metalwork.

What inspired you to become a science and technology teacher?

After completing my higher education in product design, I did not want to work in a world dominated by men. I loved subjects like math, tech, design and ICT, so I decided to become a teacher. I enjoy being able to inspire students, because they are the future.

Today marks the 2018 International Girls in ICT Day. Why do you think it is important to equip girls with digital skills?  

Developing skills for the 21st Century, such as media and ICT literacy, being able to think creatively, computationally and critically, is very important. The way we communicate is becoming more digital every day. Teaching digital skills now to students, particularly girls, means that they will benefit from it their entire life. It will equip girls with the skills needed to apply for any job they dream of and enable them to take part in shaping the future.

UNESCO’s Cracking the Code report found that just 35% of higher education students studying STEM subjects are women while only 3% graduate from ICT fields worldwide. In a few years from now, there will be 7 million new STEM jobs in Europe - we’ll need all the talent available. From your experience, what could inspire and engage girls to follow STEM and ICT fields and create a more balanced gender representation in these fields?

There are many things to be done! More female roles models can inspire girls to engage in these fields. Changing attitudes, especially the way men think about what women can do, can make space for the next generation of STEM girls and women. Enabling women to earn the same wages as men is also an important step in levelling the playing field. Teachers also have a big role to play in inspiring girls to follow STEM or ICT fields and supporting their students even when things get a little tough. Teaching STEM and ICT subjects hands-on by having girls design a game or keep a blog online can encourage them to engage in these subjects and believe that these fields are not only for boys.

Female teachers can have a positive impact on girls’ and boys’ education. Do you see yourself as a role model for your female students and if so, what do you strive to teach your students as a woman in STEM education?

I think it is very important that girls and boys see that STEM subjects are also being taught by women. Teachers are supposed to be a reflection of students’ future society. I’m not always aware of it because it feels very natural for me, but I do see myself as a role model for my female students. I know it is very important to motivate and stimulate girls to engage and succeed in STEM subjects.

You established a robotics programming activity for your students: do girls and boys engage in the same manner? If not, how do you stimulate girls’ participation and performance?

There is a difference in the way girls and boys engage in the robotics activity. Girls tend not to show much interest while boys like it from the start. But the one thing that girls and boys have in common is that they are all very creative. As a teacher, I strive to give my students the time and the space to be creative. I also ensure that curriculum and extra-curricular projects are designed to appeal to girls. Girls often tend to think robotics is too hard for them and that they will most likely fail. It is important to show girls that they too can do it. Because once they do, girls end up being surprised at how much they actually enjoy it.

Teacher training can help overcome gender bias. In your work as a woman teacher trainer, how do you strive to have future teachers engage girls in STEM education? What teaching methods do you use or believe are effective to engage girls in the fields of STEM?

Awareness of gender differences in these particular fields of education is the first thing to achieve as a teacher. STEM subjects used to be taught in such a way that girls would find not find them interesting. I introduced new methods of teaching, such as Gamification (game-based learning) and Escape the Classroom (completing subject-related challenges) to appeal to both genders. Every student should have fun learning, because it helps with retention and makes learning more interesting. The manner in which STEM subjects are taught can make a huge difference in girls’ participation and engagement.

What advice would you give to girls and young women interested in pursuing STEM and ICT studies and careers?

Everything is possible. It will not always be easy, especially in the workplace, but if you have a dream of pursuing STEM or ICT studies and becoming an engineer or a coder, keep trying and you will succeed. Just do it!