Let’s make science the new cookery!

On Tuesday 13 October in a galaxy not so far away at Edinburgh Napier University, astrophysicist Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock MBE delivered the university’s first Ada Lovelace lecture – Women in Science: The Challenge.

In the audience were Rachel Adamson from the Scottish Funding Council and Jackie Galbraith from Ayrshire College. Here is a summary of what they took away from the lecture.

Maggie talked about her three-pronged approach to encouraging young people into science and technology –

  • Role models – who don’t need to, indeed shouldn’t, be perfect. Maggie believes that the critical skill of a role model is to share experience and knowledge
  • Relevance – where the contribution of science, engineering and technology is demonstrated by meaningful examples which young people can relate to
  • Wonder – encouraging curiosity and exploration of ideas.

But, we have a problem. A problem which Maggie summed up as a ‘societal PR problem’. According to Maggie, science, technology and engineering suffer from an image of being ‘pale, male and stale’, with significant women scientists and mathematicians invisible in most classrooms.

She highlighted the achievements of historical and current day female scientists including Marie Curie, who was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, the first person and only woman to win twice, and the only person to win twice in multiple sciences.

Possibly more disconcerting and damaging is the image of science, engineering and technology as irrelevant, with the portrayal in this Dilbert video one which many parents and young people identify with.

To overcome these negative perceptions, when she speaks to young people in schools, Maggie shares three things with them –

  1. Why she became a scientist
  2. How she became a scientist
  3. What she does as a scientist

What inspired the 3-year-old Maggie to become a scientist was the Clangers and a desire to travel to space to meet them!

This desire kept her motivated throughout her school life and, despite having undiagnosed dyslexia as a child, she graduated with a BSc in physics and a PhD in mechanical engineering from Imperial College London.

As a scientist, she has worked for the Ministry of Defence on projects ranging from missile warning systems to landmine detectors.

Up, up and away!

Introducing her lecture, Maggie said that we live in ‘scientifically exciting times’, which she illustrated very well in her presentation. She concluded that ‘science has the power to unite us’ if we adhere to the statement in the photo below of her daughter.

Food for thought – Could science be the new cookery?

Maggie was hopeful that we could soon see as many TV programmes on science as we currently have on cookery and that there might be as much excitement and interest generated by them!

But how might such interest come about?

As Maggie said, we need to address the ‘societal PR problem’. As part of this, Jackie and Rachel are working together with people from across Scotland to develop a Gender Action Plan setting out actions to achieve gender equality within Scottish colleges and universities.

Some of these actions will be focused on tackling the shortage of women in science, engineering and technology as well as the lack of men in other subjects, such as teaching and early years care.

With colleges and universities working with schools to provide pupils with positive role models, who show them the relevance of STEM to their own lives and instil in them wonder and curiosity for all things scientific, how long will it be before we have the Great British Science Off?

We think Maggie would make a great host!


This Ayrshire Girl Can-Do STEM!

Ayrshire College means business when it comes to addressing gender imbalance in subject areas where women are under-represented.

The College also supports the #ThisAyrshireGirlCan campaign initiated by the Ayrshire College Student Association, which focuses on STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) and sport.

An important aspect of our work every year is to promote female students who are building a career in traditionally male-dominated sectors. Find out how Tammy, Carra and Amanda are forging their engineering careers with the help of the College.

Tammy Niven, manufacturing apprentice at  GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) in Irvine, has just completed her HNC in manufacturing.

“I was in 5th year at school when I saw the advert for GSK apprenticeships and it really appealed to me. As I looked into it, manufacturing was the field that looked right for me, so I applied for that. A manufacturing apprenticeship at GSK is much more than working on a production line. You’re part of a really important process.

“I’m enjoying the course. I really like physics although it is really hard, but I think the challenge is what I like about it.”

Twenty year old Carra Woods is an apprentice fabricator and welder at Wallace McDowall in Ayr.

“When the apprenticeship vacancy came up, I applied for it through the college because I did my SVQ Level 2 there. I’m in the first year of my apprenticeship and come to college one day a week.

“During the four days in the workshop, it’s constant work – we’re building everything! Although we don’t get to do all the jobs because we’re still learning, we get a shot at most jobs!

“The best part of the job is proving everyone wrong by being a girl! It was scary at the start, but I knew I was going into a male-dominated working environment so it didn’t really bother me too much. I’m just going to prove to everyone that I can do it!”

Before she came to Ayrshire College, Amanda O’Hara worked as a cabin crew member with EasyJet.

“This where my interest in aviation started. When we were working we were always having technical problems, so that got me more and more interested in the engineering side of things. I would ask the engineers what was happening, what was going on.

“My cabin crew background has been really useful on my course because I already know a lot of the terminology.”


Celebrating women programmers – past, present and future

Ada Lovelace Day – 13 October 2015

Ada Lovelace Day is about celebrating women engineers, scientists, technologists or mathematicians role models who inspire other girls and women.

This year is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Ada Lovelace who is widely held to have been the first computer programmer. Close friends with inventor Charles Babbage, Lovelace was intrigued by his Analytical Engine and in 1842 at the age of 27 she wrote several early ‘computer programmes’.

Despite the first computer programmer being a woman and female coders playing a big part in wartime and the post-war era, gender imbalance poses a major challenge in today’s IT industry, where women make up just 13 per cent of tech specialists in the workforce.

So, on a day dedicated to promoting women in science, engineering and technology, meet Dr Claire Quigley and find out what inspired her career in computing.

Claire studied Computing Science at Glasgow University. She is a Project Officer for CoderDojo Scotland at the Glasgow Science Centre, where she supports the CoderDojo network of computer coding clubs for young people across Scotland. In partnership with the College, Claire helped to establish Coderdojo Ayrshire, one of the most active coding clubs for young people in Scotland.

Dr Claire Quigley


Her experience includes working at Glasgow and Cambridge Universities, being part of a team which developed and ran an interactive coding experience at CBBC Live, and being one of the authors of a ‘Help Your Kids with Computer Coding’, a book introducing children to programming.

What inspired you to get involved in computing and make a career from it?

I wasn’t interested in computing at all as a teenager – I thought it was all to do with games, which I also had no interest in. It wasn’t until my second year studying physics at Glasgow University that I took an extra course aimed at allowing you to wire up your experiments to a computer and program it to do the measurements. This appealed to me as, while I liked and was good at the theoretical side of the course, I didn’t enjoy the labs and struggled to get my measurements accurate enough.

After reading a bit of the text book and writing a few programs I realised that programming wasn’t necessarily all about games. In fact it seemed more like a “live action” version of the bits of maths that I enjoyed: taking a problem and turning it round in your head until you saw how all the pieces fitted together. Then writing a program to make the computer do things to produce the answer to the problem. I soon realised I enjoyed programming much more than physics and switched courses to Computing Science.

As a woman in the IT industry, what challenges have you faced and how did you overcome them?

The main challenge I’ve faced is that people occasionally assume that I’m not a programmer because I’m a woman. However, apart from that, I’ve found programmers to be friendly people to work with from all different backgrounds. Most of them are just interested in getting things to work, and finding new ways of doing that. Gender is not usually an issue at all.

Describe your job on a day to day basis. What are the highlights?

My job varies quite a lot from day to day, which is one of the things I enjoy about it. Tasks vary from emailing people to organising workshops or Dojos, meeting people to discuss the possibility of them setting up a Dojo or working with us on a project, writing code and worksheets that we’ll use at workshops, or actually running a workshop.

Highlights are probably the days when I get to actually run a workshop I’ve been planning and see people engage with it. I also enjoy working on ideas for projects that combine different areas of science with programming with my colleagues in the science centre or arts with people from other projects in the city.

What would you say to a girl or woman who was considering a career in IT?

Go for it – and keep in mind that there are more and more careers that use programming. From medicine, to wearable technology, science, games and art, programming is a tool to help you make things happen in the area you’re interested in.

Inspiring the next genetation of programmers

Ayrshire College holds Coderdojo clubs throughout the year in venues across Ayrshire. Two are now open for booking –

  • Tuesday 20 October at the College’s Kilwinning Campus from 6-8pm
  • Thursday 26 November at Dumfries House in Cumnock from 6-8pm

If you know a young person aged 7 to 17 who is interested in learning to code, book online at http://coderdojoscotland.com/events.


New Campus Countdown: Focus on Construction

The countdown is on until the official opening of our new campus in Kilmarnock’s Hill Street. Each month we plan to unveil a new curriculum area in the new campus as we hear from employers, lecturers and students about their hopes for the campus and how the sector will evolve. This month, the spotlight is on Construction Technology and Trades.

Graeme Donaldson is the Curriculum Manager for Trades and splits his time between the College’s Kilmarnock and Kilwinning campuses. To help us countdown to the new campus, Graeme spoke to us about the construction curriculum area in the College, what the College expects of its construction students and what he is most looking forward to from the new campus.

The Construction department sits within the STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics] directorate in the College. In Kilmarnock, our construction courses are delivered in our Townholm satellite campus. The main courses taught in Townholm are Brickwork, Carpentry and Joinery, and Painting and Decorating at a range of levels. The department also delivers a Construction Craft National 4 course to East Ayrshire secondary school pupils.

The construction sector employs over 8% of the UK workforce and is a growing industry with more than 182,000 new jobs promised by 2018. We asked Graeme to describe the main skills that students need to succeed within this industry:

“One of the main skills which students need to succeed is to show a keen interest in the construction sector. Courses contain a large amount of practical work, and students need to be fairly fit and prepared to carry out manual tasks and activities. At the College students will also receive plenty of theory based work to expand their knowledge and understanding of their trade specific course.

Throughout all our courses, we aim to embed a range of transferable skills like timekeeping, attendance, the ability to follow instructions, solve basic problems and learn basic industry skills. There are great chances for students to progress to a higher level of study if they have the right mind set and are committed to enhancing their skills and personal development.

It is also important that students cooperate with curriculum and service staff to achieve the best learning experience possible to set them up for their future career.”

Graeme believes that the courses offered by Ayrshire College are a great starting block for students with ambitions of a future career within the industry:

“In order to help students as best we can, we help them to develop the transferable skills that employers are looking for. We also make sure that there are progression routes in place for students to ensure they get the most out of their time with us.

In the Carpentry and Joinery Level 5 course, we will be sending students on industrial work placements for four weeks. During their month long experience they get the chance to experience a realistic working environment, allowing them to gain a much more detailed insight into the daily structure of their chosen trade. At the moment we are hoping to provide work placements with East Ayrshire Council’s Building and Works department with the hope of expansion for the near future.

If students excel during their placement and the company has an upcoming vacancy, we work together to help the student apply for the position. This is a great opportunity for students to experience what their industry is like and help them put the skills learnt in class into action. It is also great for local businesses, the local community and the economy.”

Looking ahead, the new Kilmarnock Campus in Hill Street will be home to over 100 construction students. With more facilities available to students and staff, Graeme can’t wait until the doors are opened in eleven months’ time.

“As the clock ticks down, I am very much looking forward to construction staff and students being part of the wider College community. The new Kilmarnock Campus will bring construction students together with students from other curriculum areas which I believe will add to our students’ learning experience.”  

In the new campus, construction facilities will include brickwork project space; brickwork workshops; joinery machine shop; two joinery workshops and painting and decorating workshops. The prospect of working in such surroundings is also striking an excited chord with Graeme.

“A big advantage of the new campus will be the bespoke trade workshops and state of the art theory classrooms which can only enhance the student experience during their time with us. We will continue to deliver a range of courses to meet industry standards which allow students the chance to gain sufficient practical skills and consolidate their knowledge.

“With more than a third of people working in the construction industry becoming their own boss, the opportunities open to students don’t just end when they graduate from their chosen course. Some students progress to a higher level, some are interested in construction management and some are eager to be let loose on the outside world.

“There are many different options for students within this sector and the new Kilmarnock campus will enhance these even further. It really is an exciting time for the students of Ayrshire College!”

For all the latest information on our new campus development in Kilmarnock click here: http://www1.ayrshire.ac.uk/new-campus-development/new-kilmarnock-campus/

Guest post – Dame Ruth Silver gives a straight A in access excellence to Ayrshire College

ruthsilverAs Chair to the Commission on Widening Access I want to better support the ambitions of Scotland’s talented young people regardless of their background to ensure that they can fully pursue their post school educational journeys and pathways. For this reason, I am undertaking a roadshow and a series of visits. As a former Principal myself of Lewisham College, a large bustling and diverse college in London, I was insistent that my journey to understand access excellence in Scotland must include colleges.

That was what brought me to Ayrshire College and what a lovely welcome and day out it turned out to be. After being met in person I was shown the new college build which will be a straight A in shape it seems! Upon arrival at the college we were greeted in person by the Principal and the Chair and treated to a fabulous lunch and pudding courtesy of the staff and students from the catering department. Simply delicious.

The Principal and Chair then provided an overview of the access work of the college but mostly what came through was a pride in its staff and its students, for this reason they asked me to listen to the stories of the students and the staff themselves as they felt they could best tell the story of what access in Ayrshire College was about.

What followed was a session with past and current students to understand their journeys, their barriers, how they overcome them and what advice they would give to others to help them achieve their ambitions. The honest stories told by the students who had lived the experience reminded me of the need for choice and the need for flexibility in our systems if the talent of our young people is to be fully released and recognised. There is no one size fits all model or one right or best route but what there must be is flexibility and positive experiences along a progressive pathway.

My discussion with the students and staff also highlighted that sometimes this good practice is already in place and is working well, as is the case for one student on the SFC’s Associate Student scheme with the college and the University of Strathclyde whereby he is both a college and a university engineering student and, it seems, getting the most out of both those systems. But in other cases this pathway is not as smooth or flexible, such as the student who entered advanced study in a Glasgow university with little support or connection to the cohorts progressing from year 1 or 2. Thankfully in the latter case the college was on hand to help find an alternative route to a university degree through the OU at the college.

I was then invited to visit The Hive and discovered another level of access and inclusion. I also noted that one of the students I had met earlier started her journey and belief in herself through the great work of the staff from The Hive. This element of access is absolutely crucial and it was plain to see that this element of the college changes lives and increases the chances of progressive positive pathways. I wondered what would happen to the lovely lively students from The Hive and what pathways they would enter next with the great support of the professionals around them.

With my head filled with thoughts and stories of pathways, I was invited to try even more delicious treats from the catering department before meeting some impressive and ambitious school students from the local area who will in time become our future teachers, dentists and doctors. Their stories differed from that of the college students and outlined how important it is to have a support network around you when considering university. It was clear to me that the application process itself, when told through the eyes of the first in family pupils, is a daunting procedure. Not only that, but it requires an element of forward planning and understanding of the system, to ensure you have right grades in the right areas at the right time. This simply must change and future students must receive better advice and support. It is unfair for those in the know to have a competitive advantage over those who do not. Furthermore, it is not the best means of identifying talent.

All of that said, the perseverance and determination of the young people I met in Ayrshire to pursue their dreams and chosen careers was remarkable, and I am not sure if anything will ever really stand in their way. I wish them all the best in their future careers and would like to thank them, the Principal, Chair and staff (and of course the wonderful catering department) for their time. I have a lot to think about as I lead the Commission on Widening Access towards its final report but, like the students, I and my fellow Commissioners have an impressive level of perseverance and determination.

Thank you Ayrshire College, like your new build I am giving you a straight A in access excellence.

You can get involved in the work of the Commission on Widening Access at www.commissiononwideningaccess.co.uk/#!join-the-discussion/c127h or by following @CoWA2015 on Twitter.