Space women connect with Ayrshire female STEM students

For National Women in Engineering Day 2016, we are delighted to share the thoughts of three leading women in science and engineering who spent all of last week at Ayrshire College with 200 school pupils and students on the International Space School Educational Trust’s (ISSET) Mission Discovery Programme.


Sarah Murray is Assistant Division Chief of EVA, Robotic and Crew Systems at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). On Monday 13 June, Sarah was the keynote speaker at the launch of Ayrshire Connects – a mentoring network for female STEM students across the college to connect to each other, to students in other colleges and universities, to employers and women in the industry sectors they aspire to enter, and to senior pupils in secondary schools across Ayrshire.

Here’s what Sarah and her colleagues had to say about women in science, technology, engineering and maths.

Sarah Murray, NASA’s Assistant Division Chief of EVA, Robotic and Crew Systems, speaking at the launch of Ayrshire Connects

It was my love of math that sparked the initial interest in electrical engineering for me. When I looked for something to study, the main thing I looked at was ‘where can I use my math?’ And electrical engineering was a great choice.

I am absolutely impressed by how Ayrshire College is engaging with young females into STEM. Especially when looking at the statistics that were shown of the small percentage of women in mathematics, technology and engineering.


I thought it was a great idea to bring these young women together so they can network and hear my story. If they got something out of it – and it seems like they did – then I’m really glad I was able to inspire them. This is a great venue for an event like this.

If they could take just one thing from my talk it would be: know what your goals are and no matter what bumps you hit in the road, just get over them and keep pushing. You need support, determination, and perseverance to reach your goals. You’re always going to run into obstacles so whether you go over them, under them, or through them, don’t let them deter you.

Rhonda Foale, who worked at NASA for eight years, speaking during Mission Discovery 

I remember Neil Armstrong walking on the moon on my 11th birthday. That was really exciting.

I was really interested in Geology and the University of Houston had Space Geology, which I thought was fascinating. So, when the Space Science programme became known to me I was thrilled about that.

I worked for NASA for eight years in the Remote Manipulator System section. The arm was physically connected to the Space Shuttle and it would be used to lift things out of the cargo bay and then deploy them into space. I worked space missions in Mission Control and I also worked with the Canadians for a visual system that would help the astronauts use the arm to put the Space Station together. I enjoyed NASA very much. NASA has a great, almost family like atmosphere to work in.

I’ve also worked in the oil industry, which was definitely male dominated. It’s really good to just do your best, you don’t want them to treat you differently – you just want them to treat you professionally. Do your job really well. A woman is perfectly capable of doing these jobs. NASA, being a government agency, automatically want to set a good example, so they seek out women and minorities. It’s very fulfilling working on teams towards really interesting goals. Women can do it and it’s very rewarding.

My advice to young women would be to at least consider science and engineering. Because there are fascinating things you can do that can allow you to have a really fulfilling career in many fields. Come to a space school and get a great experience, learn to work in teams and give presentations. It’s something that you can try and be amazed by how much you like it.

I’ve been working loosely with Scottish space schools for about 15 years, and I’ve seen students get really enthusiastic and say “I never even considered this before, I didn’t realise and now I’m so glad I came to this because now I see all of these opportunities that are open to me”. We hear from these students after a year and they’ve just really blossomed and love what they’re doing.

Julie Keeble, Chief Scientist with ISSET, speaking at the launch of Ayrshire Connects


First of all, I’d like to say this is probably the best Women in STEM event that I’ve been to during my career!

Having someone like Sarah Murray – who’s so inspirational to me (and I’ve been working in space for a while) – there’s no doubt that the students would have got something from it in what you can do if you believe in yourself and you keep on trying. If you don’t give up, and go through every door that opens, try your hardest in any position you do regardless of the tasks, you will get somewhere.

Last week one day I was part of a team scooping eggs off the floor, another week I’m sending experiments to the International Space Station. Working as a team means doing every part of that job that helps the team as a whole – regardless of what level the job is. People notice that you work hard and you never know where that will take you.

Events like Mission Discovery are excellent for young women. These events were not available to me when I was younger and so my career options were very narrow as a result of that – I had to get to university before I knew which options were available. To have young people from schools and Ayrshire College being able to see what is possible is brilliant. It shouldn’t be that you have to wait until you’re in your 20’s before you realise what you want to do. These events help you determine that at an earlier age and then you can look forward to having those aspirations.

The ISSET Mission Discovery programme encourages students to believe in their dreams, to work in their teams and believe that anything is possible. At the end of this week’s Mission Discovery – one of these teams will be having their experiment sent up to the International Space Station. You can’t beat that. What I say to winning students is – when you apply to university and apply for jobs, when they see on your CV that you’ve sent an experiment to the International Space Station – you’re going to get an interview!

Mission Discovery changes lives, regardless of whether the students taking part win the final prize or not. Everyone who enters the programme is a winner because they change over the week. They get team building skills, they increase their confidence, and we have different pupils on Friday to the ones who came on Monday. I still get inspired by Mission Discovery programme, and I’ve done several of the programmes, but it never fails to make me feel like we’re changing lives.

If you would like to find out more about Ayrshire Connects please contact Jackie Galbraith at

Raising the profile of our female engineering apprentices

Ayrshire College supports over 800 apprentices each year, mainly in the STEM sectors of engineering, automotive and construction. National Women in Engineering Day is on Thursday 23 June with a theme of raising profiles. In this blog post we highlight some of our female engineering apprentices.

Raising the profiles of women in traditionally male-dominated occupations is very important in helping young girls imagine themselves in those roles. The following film captures how, early on in their education, children already define career opportunities as male and female.

Probably the best way for young women to decide if a career in engineering is the right one for them is to hear from other young women who have made that choice and are building careers in the sector. Click on the photos below to meet some of our science, technology, engineering and construction students.

Want more? Watch these short films.

Abbie Robb, Prestwick Aircraft Maintenance Ltd 

Anna Manson, Spirit Aerosystems

Kirsty Harvey, Woodward Inc.

Chloe Grieg, GlaxoSmithKline

Tammy Niven, GlaxoSmithKline

Megan Forrest, Hyspec Engineering


Do we give girls a real choice?

Talat Yaqoob is Director of Equate Scotland, the national expert on women in science, engineering, technology and the built environment. Equate Scotland’s team works with colleges, universities, employers, women and girls to increase the number of women studying and working in STEM.

As we approach National Women in Engineering Day 2016, Talat asks ‘do we give girls a real choice?’

For a number of years now, Scotland has prioritised increasing the number of women in science, engineering, technology and the built environment. This is for two reasons; firstly because we have a huge skills shortage in Scotland. By 2020 we need 140,000 more engineers, if we do not engage some of the 51% of the population who are women, that is a target we will never meet. Secondly, because it is the economically sensible thing to do. Scotland’s economy is growing but it is growing in the STEM industries the most, to capitalise on this, of course we will need more women. The Royal College of Edinburgh estimates that an equal number of women in the STEM industry is worth around £71 million to the Scottish economy.

So for all those reasons, our work is vital. But I often still get asked, if girls are not interested – why are you pushing them into STEM? Maybe they simply choose to do other subjects? The reality of course is a problem with the word “choice”.

From birth we stereotype children. Think of the aisles in a toy shop or children’s clothing shop – what do you notice? Rows dedicated to “boy things” and rows dedicated to “girl things”. The boys’ things will be blue, will involve physical activity and often some form of construction or cars. The girls’ things will be pink, will be about caring, cooking or appearance and will not be as intellectually stimulating. Is that real choice? If a girl sees a science kit she is interested in, but the packaging has a boy on it and phrases like “rocket making – the sky is the limit for boys” (that is real, by the way) would that girl look at it and purchase it despite its stereotyping? Or internalise it and think that the toy is not for her?

Later in life, as young women and men make subject choices these stereotypes remain as key influencers over them. Girls have grown up thinking science and maths are too tough for them, and boys have grown up thinking arts or home economics is not right for them. This thinking is of course wrong but, when those are the messages you have had from birth, it is a lot to expect a 15 year old young person to defy them. Last year, 76% of the students taking SCQF 6-7 in physics were boys, 82% of computing at the level were boys and 64% of pupils in product design were boys. At this point the “choice” has already been restricted for what girls can move into at college and university level. What we do see, however, is that for the small number of girls who take these subjects they outperform boys academically – busting the age old myth that science or maths is too tough for girls.

When making career “choices” women students, regardless of having excelled in the needed subjects, are still channelled into sciences which have a higher intake of women already; life science, biology, veterinary science and medicine. Engineering, chemistry, physic, computing and built environment are rarely promoted to them.

So back to the original question; maybe girls simply choose to do other subjects?

We can clearly see that they are making a decision from a restricted number of choices – can we truly call this choice at all? It is not a natural occurrence that only 24% of 16 year old girls take physics. If we were to remove institutionalised attitudes, this would be much closer to 50%. Our job is to re-think these attitudes and not push girls into STEM subjects, but rather give them a real and diverse choice in the first place, choices which include all options, whether childcare or chemistry.

We owe it to girls with an interest and ambition to pursue STEM and we owe it to the future of Scotland’s economy to give girls a real choice.

Thursday is National Women in Engineering Day and, whilst we celebrate the girls and women pursuing engineering, we need to highlight the hundreds more who could be pursuing it had we given them engineering as an option from the start.

Ayrshire College has taken the issue of Women in STEM seriously and I am very excited that Equate Scotland will be working closely with the college. The recent #ThisAyrshireGirlCan campaign has been a source of inspiration for many, and I know that it will have switched on a light for many girls who thought science and engineering wasn’t for them. Every time we switch on that light, we erase outdated stereotypes a little more and open up the world of STEM to the talents and creativity of women across Scotland.