How Israel is enthusing Britain’s teenagers to become the next generation of scientists

Since 2010, I have been providing university advice to students and their parents through my business Before that I was a secondary school teacher, Head of Science and Assistant Headteacher and published author in university guidance. I have advised hundreds of students with their university applications, helping them to choose a course and university and to write the all-important personal statement. I currently hold the post of Director of Higher Education at Immanuel College.

Parents often tell me that they wish their son or daughter to study Management or a business-related course. The STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) industry, despite massive government investment, has fallen out of favour with some of my clients as a feasible industry in which to work and, ultimately, make money. Although the number of students studying STEM subjects at university, has increased (in 2014 it was 98, 000, an 18% rise since 2003), the number of STEM graduates entering STEM jobs had declined dramatically (from approximately half in 2001 to a third ten years later). However, the STEM industry offers amazing and worthwhile careers and fundamental scientific research has spawned many modern inventions such as the internet and microwaves.

Perhaps the biggest problem in UK STEM today, is the lack of women represented.  Next week  the OECD (the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) which runs PISA (the Programme for International Student Assessment) will publish a report which highlights a huge gender gap (13 percentage points compared to an average of one percentage point) in attainment scores between 15 year old British girls’ and boy’s performance in science literacy. This puts the UK in the bottom five of the 67 countries that take part in the assessments. However, various statisticians have questioned the validity of the methodology and analysis of these tests. Comparing Science GCSE results yields a different story: girls outperform boys in Science GCSEs. Whatever measure is used, it is clear that not enough girls do Science A-levels, which means that they do not go on to do STEM degrees, and are therefore not well- represented in the STEM industry. According to various studies, girls’ self-esteem and confidence affects how they view their abilities in Science, affecting their take-up of STEM subjects post-GCSE. Furthermore, there is a persistent image that study of STEM subjects is for boys not girls. Any way to challenge such outdated stereotypes would give a welcome boost to girls’ uptake of STEM A-levels.

I was invited to the Seventh Annual ZF (Zionist Federation) Science Week last month. On 29th January, ZF treated 31 schools (over 660 students) to a free day of Israeli medical science lectures at the Institute of Education in London. The lecture hall was packed with diverse groups of sixth form students. The aim of the day was to highlight the importance of basic research in Science and to demonstrate that Science has no borders. The lectures were based on topics introduced on the A-level Biology syllabus. The first lecture was given by Russian national, Triana Amen, who is researching aging and rejuvenation at the Hebrew University. The second lecture was given by Dr Fahed Hakim, a paediatrician researching the importance of sleep on a biochemical level at the Technion in Haifa. What was notable about these first two speakers was that that they were not Jewish, and how proud they were of their Israeli universities and research teams. The third speaker was Professor Illana Gozes who spoke about the ADNP gene sequence in Alzheimer’s disease, autism and schizophrenia. Most importantly for encouraging girls into STEM, two out of three of the speakers were women and were excellent role models for the sixth formers present.

Of course, you do not have to be female to be inspired by the event. The students were aware of how attending such an event might inform their university choices. One student said they were not sure if they wanted to study Biology or Psychology at university, and this conference helped him explore possibilities. Another student said that she attends numerous lectures and will describe some of them on her UCAS form, when she applies to university, evidencing her interest in her chosen subject. Another student, who does not intend to go to university explained that the lectures helped to contextualise her Biology A-level studies, making them more meaningful to her.

It was truly remarkable to find Israeli scientists giving up their time to visit the UK to enthuse British teenagers of all backgrounds about the wonders of Science and to encourage them to study Science at university. Perhaps, our British scientists, and in particular, our female scientists, can learn a thing or two about marketing their subject from their Israeli colleagues.