TEENAGE girls from across Cork and beyond are getting set to learn from some of the most inspirational women working in the worlds of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, as the annual I WISH conference takes place in City Hall.
Kicking off locally on January 25, the two-day event, with a sister event in Dublin’s RDS the following week, will engage 5,000 teens through talks and demonstrations where they can meet inspiring women working in a variety of STEM roles.
Now in its fourth year, I WISH is going from strength to strength, securing Dell EMC and VMware as this year’s anchor sponsors with support from many other major local employers including PepsiCo, Johnson Controls and Arup.
Co-founder of the event, Gillian Keating, says that this year’s speakers all have exciting stories to tell.
“Girls want the event to be exciting and to hear from enthusiastic people who can encourage them and ignite the spark they need,” she said. We have some fantastic speakers, a mix of superstars where people know the brand names and some lesser known young graduates who are either just finishing their chosen course or just entering into programmes with companies exhibiting.
“People like Ciara Judge, who everyone knows from winning the BT Young Scientist, will be speaking, as will Anne O’Leary who is the CEO of Vodafone, and Brenda Romero who is a game designer and artist. They will all be telling their story of what it feels like to be working in STEM.”
The core message of the event is to inspire, encourage and motivate young female students to carry on STEM subjects to Leaving Certificate level and beyond, in order to keep job opportunities in this sector open to them.
“I WISH is about debunking the myths and showcasing the opportunities out there, but it is also very much about building confidence and helping the girls realise they are capable of doing anything they put their mind do,” Ms Keating says.
“Year on year, the girls say tell us they want careers where they will be making an impact and helping people. What they don’t see is that the best building block to improving people’s lives is through STEM.”
Ms Keating says that the importance of keeping doors open cannot be underestimated, particularly given the growth in this sector.
“STEM infiltrates everything we do now. This is why these subjects are important and that is why we showcase people who are working in these fields.
“That is also why we make the connection between the subject choices in school and opportunities out there by showing what picking particular subjects can do for you, or the flipside, if you don’t pick these subjects how much you are limiting your future prospects.
“We are encouraging young girls to open their eyes and see the opportunities out there and bring that back to the classroom.
“They are keeping doors open until they are ready to make an informed choice about what they want to do in the future.”
Growing year by year, the event has already proven to be successful in this regard. The 2017 I WISH Choices, Chances, Changes survey, completed by 2,397 girls and 54 teachers in 15 counties, revealed that 40% of the girls who attended made changes to their Leaving Certificate subject choices as a result.
It also revealed some of the barriers facing students. Junior Certificate science was not compulsory in 32% of schools surveyed, cutting some students off from STEM at the age of 14. Worryingly, in girls-only schools students were also more likely to have not chosen any STEM subjects for Leaving Certificate.
Events like I WISH help in these cases, with the survey finding a direct link between the number of extra-curricular STEM activities undertaken by students and the take up of STEM subjects to Leaving Certificate.
Among the girls-only schools that attended three or more extra-curricular STEM events, 30% chose to take at least two STEM subjects to Leaving Certificate, compared to 20% who attended two or less.
“This effect is less marked in mixed schools but still exists,” the survey added. “This demonstrates that particularly in girls’ schools, participation in extra-curricular STEM activities is highly influential.”
One of the very first attendees of I WISH was Tara McCarthy from Rochestown. As a student at St Angela’s College, she was invited by Gillian to take part in focus groups as part of the earliest planning of the first conference.
Now studying Quantitive Business at UCD, the 19-year-old says events like I WISH were crucial in helping her narrow down her choices.
“Before Transition Year I didn’t have any idea of what I wanted to do,” she admits. “I kind of liked all the subjects which made choosing them difficult.
“I knew though that science courses have specific requirements, so I did chemistry and physics plus economics, accounting and the basic English, Irish, Maths and German.
“I had a nice mix of subjects and kept my options open for both science and business, which I’ve carried on in college.”
One of the major appeals of her current course is the heavy emphasis on maths, combined with economics.
“It’s a pretty broad degree, and graduates go on to become risk analysts, go into trading, do consulting. It just goes to show how many options are available.
“I think that when a lot of people think of STEM they think of being in a lab or at a computer. It’s so much more than that so it’s really important to keep an open mind.”
Tara advises students to research as widely as they can, to talk to people working in or studying STEM and look at smaller courses in colleges that they may not have otherwise considered. “These sectors will keep expanding as technology advances,” she says.
“Even in my degree lot of modules have changed in past few years to incorporate more technology as things are moving on.
“Students should keep their options open. There are so many career opportunities available and we shouldn’t automatically assume they are targeted towards any one gender.”
James Deane, Transition Year Coordinator at St Vincent’s Secondary School, will be bringing his class of 22 to the event this year. He says the pupils love the event, and find something to suit all their interests.
“As a school, we think it’s important students are engaged with STEM. We think we’re letting our students down if we don’t prepare them for STEM and this programme has brought it to the students in a whole new way.
“We’ve been attending since the start so all of our Senior Cycle students have been, and the first year we came, we didn’t really know what to expect, but we were blown away by what was on offer. It’s a very well organised event and free which makes it really accessible for schools.
“Students enjoy the talks from women they can relate to who discuss what they did in college and how they found their way to their current jobs. They also really enjoy walking around the trade fair.
“I’ve noticed students go in all directions and all find something interesting in a different way.”
Mr Deane believe that the programme “should be commended for breaking down stereotypes”.
“The girls see so many different ways women are involved in STEM and the quality of presentations and high profile speakers really resonates with them,” he says.
“The leave feeling empowered at the end of it, and full of questions to ask our guidance counsellor.
“It really opens their minds to a world of opportunity they didn’t know existed.”
This has been translated to the classroom, where more students are looking at career options they may not have otherwise considered.
“I think, ultimately, students pick subjects because they generally like them, but anecdotally, when looking at college courses they are looking at a more broad spectrum and are more open to looking at courses which are more technical,” he says.
“They realise that they don’t need to be highly technical or mathematical to work in STEM. It’s not all computer programming. You can work in a tech company in a finance or marketing roles.
“I think the main thing is it does a good job of broadening their reach and stops them being narrow minded when picking courses at 18 when they are not fully aware of the potential opportunities awaiting them.”
For more about I WISH see http://www.iwish.ie/