One Irish woman is changing young girls' attitudes to maths

One woman believes so strongly in the need to change girls’ attitudes to maths that she gave up her job to go on the road to fight the cause, says Ailin Quinlan

BACK in 2012 Grainne Bagnall was a top corporate head-hunter tasked with recruiting female technicians and engineers to fill vacancies in a number of multi-national companies.

But guess what?

She couldn’t find any.

A senior recruitment manager for 15 years before establishing her own business, Bagnall had been requested to put forward qualified female candidates for corporate clients concerned about the lack of gender diversity in their tech departments.

“They wanted to rebalance their gender ration which was highly male-dominated — and this was everywhere from financial services to gaming companies, research and development firms and software houses,” recalls Bagnall, adding that clients reported the ratio of female to male applications wasn’t even one-in-10.“It was that bad.”

But the scarcity of qualified women was such that the Meath native couldn’t meet the demand.

Bagnall later moved to Cork where she joined a small firm of life science recruitment consultants.

“This firm had a passion to seek more female engineers and life scientists,” says Bagnall, who couldn’t have imagined the result of this geographical and career re-location.

In 2012 Bagnall’s new employer sponsored her to host an event in University College Cork encouraging girls and their parents to consider careers in the areas of science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM).

“From that came a burst of phone calls and emails from industry, parents and schools asking me what I’d do about this problem ,” recalls Bagnall, who took the bull by the horns and surveyed 450 female transition year students in 15 second-level schools in the Cork area to see what they thought about STEM subjects.

“What we discovered was that even by then girls had already developed psychological blocks about their abilities in terms of STEM or in choosing three science subjects.

“These were perceived as difficult, uncool and suitable only for boys,” she recalls.

None of this comes as any surprise to Roscommon-born Mary Carty, entrepreneur, globetrotting business consultant and co-founder of the hugely successful Outbox Incubator programme.

This programme, which was launched in London earlier this year by Princess Anne, promotes STEM subjects amongst girls and young women aged 11-22.

Carty, who set up Outbox Incubator with a friend and colleague Anne Marie Imasidon was pleased to see that Irish girls made up 30 of the 115 participants on the first programme which ran this summer.

This is why she says she set it up:

“There was a constant refrain from the girls we were coming across — girls who were incredibly talented, in terms of STEM ability — that they felt under-valued, not supported and were being called weird by their peers because they were interested in STEM.”

Girls were being told that maths and coding was too difficult; that it was for boys and that girls who wanted to engage in these areas were simply weird, she recalls.

“Future careers are going to blossom from the STEM sector. Girls should be equipped for it, and that is what we’re doing — readying young girls for a life outside the box.”

Ironically, the warnings by Bagnall and Carty come as schools, colleges, museums and libraries prepare for Maths Week Ireland 2015, a national celebration of maths which runs until October 18, promoting an appreciation, awareness and understanding of maths through a range of activities (www.mathsweek.ie).

Back, however, to Bagnall, who, shortly after completing her schools survey, received a call from Dave Goulding, a research fellow at Cork Institute of Technology.

He explained about a programme called Maths Circles which was an extra-curricular second-level maths syllabus created by third level mathematics lecturers.

Bagnall was intrigued: “I consulted with a number of corporate clients, asking that if we developed a maths programme for primary schools would they support it?

“There was very positive feedback from the big companies because of the growing concern in the sector about the lack of women in tech’ here in Ireland.”

First though, she had to find funding. Initially support came from a company called Claran Consultants in Cork.

Within months, 12 more firms — including the EQuiddity company — came on board providing a range of financial and structural help.

In 2013 Bagnall and the Maths Circles creators launched the Sense About Maths (SAM) programme, which is now up and running in 45 schools in the city and county.

It brings tech experts and scientists into participating schools every week for six weeks, to deliver an hour-long maths lesson to fifth and sixth class pupils.

“The mentor talks about how maths is very important to real life and to his or her job.

“The maths lessons are aligned to the existing curriculum but the tutors present the material in the context of real life and out-of-the-box thinking,” explains Bagnall.

“It’s very physical, very hands-on and involves thinking on your feet rather than learning something off,” she says adding that to date the programme has a waiting list of 20 schools and a thick folder of testimonials from teachers and parents about the benefits.

“We want industry to become more involved in terms of funding, so that we can provide more mentoring in schools — it costs about €1,500 to run the programme for six weeks in one school.

“This is very much about corporate social responsibility and also about common sense she says — because it directly nurtures a gender-diverse flow of highly qualified employees to fill the needs of employers.

“The SAM programme is essentially helping big tech companies feed their future employee pipeline,” says Bagnall who has taken unpaid leave from her job to launch and run the programme and has been forced to “couch-surf” with sympathetic, supportive friends in order to be able to continue running the programme.

“I’m doing this purely as a social entrepreneurial project,” she declares, adding however, that for financial reasons, she’ll soon have to return to employment and manage SAM on a part-time basis.

In the meantime, she’s preparing an application for the Social Entrepreneur Ireland programme, and, in conjunction with CIT and IT@Cork, has applied for Science Foundation Ireland funding to further develop SAM.

“I feel this project has far reaching implications, and will have a huge impact on Irish society and on the sustainability of our economy.”

Case study: Rathpeacon National School and SAM

Fifth and sixth class pupils at Rathpeacon National School love the Sense About Maths programme, says school principal Susanna O’Neill, a teacher for more than 20 years.

The programme, which has now run twice in the school, began in September 2013 as a pilot project for about 100 fifth and sixth class pupils. And it was very different for a variety of reasons.

First the programme was specially created by third-level maths lecturers and professors working on a voluntary basis.

Secondly it emphasises problem solving rather than rote learning, and hinges on games, puzzles and interactive conversations.

Thirdly the lessons are not delivered by the class teacher, but by IT experts, technicians and scientists.

“Schoolchildren often don’t see the connection between what they are doing in their copies and how it applies to everyday life, but here were people who used maths every day in the workplace,” O’Neill explains.

“The programme was presented in our school by a number of parents who mostly worked in IT,” she says.

“The children worked in groups of four to six. They were given problems to solve as a group so it was a huge collaboration.”

One of the problems was the concept of Hamiltonian Circuits — children learned the difference between a path and a circuit— while others involved tessellations and tangrams.

“These are all advanced concepts presented in very simple ways and very practical ways and it worked really well. It was all hands-on and not just learning from a book. The children had concrete materials and problem solved as a group,” she recalls.

“She noticed increased interest in ‘this kind of maths’ in female pupils, because it was more hands on and they could simply see the point of it.”

“We’re very pleased with the programme and we’d love to see more of it. It gives the teacher a new way of looking at the teaching of maths and it complements the existing maths syllabus. We have now incorporated the SAM programme into our school self-evaluation numeracy programme.”


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