Athene Donald’s speech from the opening ceremony

This week saw the opening ceremony of the Athene Donald Building for Science and Technology at Churchill. Our guest of honour was Professor Dame Athene Donald herself.

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The opening ceremony began with our Chamber Choir, who gave a fantastic rendition of Blue Skies, arranged by our very own Mr Spencer. Polly and Freya, the Year 8 students who suggested the building be named in her honour, then introduced Professor Donald, who gave an inspiring speech to the assembled guests. Outgoing President of the Sixth Form Council, Libby Scott, gave the vote of thanks, before the guests were shown round the classes currently in session in our wonderful new facilities.

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With her kind permission, I reproduce Professor Donald’s speech here in full, so that all our staff, students and the wider Academy community can benefit from her inspiring and positive message.

It’s wonderful to be here today. And it’s wonderful to see a school able to provide such fantastic facilities for science and with such a strong commitment to encouraging girls and young women to pursue science to A levels and university.

We’ve just heard the Chamber Choir sing Blue Skies. That is a song that I chose for one of my Desert Island Discs, because it has a particular significance for me. When I was in the USA and my research was going very badly, I found the balance in my life by singing Barbershop with three students in my (engineering) department. It helped me get through some otherwise miserable times and helped me to persist. To the students here I would say remember that life does not always go according to plan, but finding ways – and people – to help you through difficult periods is very important. Music was my escape and support.

Let me say straight away how deeply honoured I am to have been chosen to have this building named after me. It is not the sort of honour that I ever expected, not something that would ever have crossed my mind when I myself was a teenager.

Having first class facilities is undoubtedly something that will make a difference to every student – not to mention staff member – who works in the new building. So many schools have to make do with out of date and often depressing surroundings in which to do their science, and that is hardly likely to inspire the next generation that this is an exciting area to pursue.

Science – which I use as shorthand to include engineering and technology of course – has a crucial role to play in our world. Whether or not a child goes on to study science in later years, if they have a feeling of comfort with the subject means that so many of the big issues – be it climate change and the necessary energy transition we all have to make, or interpreting health risks or what AI may mean for our society – will not feel so scary and unapproachable.

Working at their science lessons in a modern block will provide a congenial atmosphere in which to get to grips with these important subjects.

And what about girls and women in science? Why do I care so passionately about this? Firstly there is the moral argument – why should 50% of the population feel that science is not for them, particularly given its role in empowering citizens in our democracy? But secondly there is the fact that we as a society need the best brains contributing to drive innovation and insight and losing these is a loss to society as a whole. We need to make sure that every young adult in this country whatever their gender, race or background – has access to good science teaching and encouragement to pursue their dreams, whatever they may be. That some children are told they can’t do one subject or another either explicitly or simply implicitly in the messages our society and media give, is not good enough. We need their brains and their talent.

The L’Oréal tagline, as I learnt when I won the Laureate for Women in Science for Europe ten years ago, is that ‘The World needs science and science needs women’. One does not need to care about cosmetics – and I am a bad poster child for L’Oréal as I am very allergic to most of them – to recognize the truth and importance of that sentence.

When I was a teenager, attending an all girls school, no one told me it was odd to want to pursue physics. No one put me off and we had good facilities and good teaching. When I went to university I found out that I was in a minority and I have been ever since. I was the first woman to be made a professor in any of the physical sciences in Cambridge, something I still feel very proud of. I am, indeed, the first woman to be Master of Churchill College at Cambridge, a college that uniquely admits 70% of its students in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects. We have an incredibly diverse intake but, because of its emphasis on these subjects, not as many young women as I would like. We are working on that, but I hope the brightest of your own students would aspire to come to a college like ours.

I am truly humbled that you chose to name your new block after me, not after the usual suspects of Marie Curie or Rosalind Franklin. I hope in some small way the knowledge that women like me can thrive in the sciences will inspire future generations. I wish the school all the very best as this new space is up and running.

Congratulations and best wishes.

Professor Dame Athene Donald

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Women in STEM: to the stars

Tuesday of this week was one of those days when the stars aligned and I saw the same issue from multiple angles all within 24 hours. The issue was gender inequality in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths.

Attitudes to STEM subjects by gender

First thing in the morning, I received an email bulletin highlighting some research which had just been published on attitudes to STEM subjects by gender at KS4. The findings made for challenging reading:

  • Girls enjoy STEM subjects less than boys: The proportion of male pupils who ranked KS4 STEM subjects first for enjoyment was almost twice that for females: 59% vs. 32%.
  • Girls are less likely to say STEM is their best subject: When asked which subject they were best at, the proportion of male pupils who ranked a STEM subject first was 60%, which again was almost twice as high compared to females at 33%.
  • Boys are more likely to think STEM leads to a job: When asked about which subjects were most likely to lead to a future job, 69% of male pupils ranked a STEM subject first compared to 51% of females.
  • Girls and boys both name STEM as leading to highest paid jobs: When asked which would lead to the highest paid job, 81% of male pupils named a STEM subject compared to 77% of females.
  • Girls are less likely to pursue STEM at A level: When asked what they planned to study at A-Level, female pupils made up the minority of those naming STEM subjects. Particularly, in Engineering (14% / 86%), Computing (15% / 85%) and Physics (22% / 78%).

Combating gender inequality is a particular mission of mine, and it is one of the reasons we have named our new Science and Technology building after a prominent female scientist, Professor Dame Athene Donald. We are doing better than the national average at Churchill, where we have a 54% to 46% split of students taking Science and Maths courses in our Sixth Form. But there is still work to do, as there is considerable variation between subjects.

Dr Sue Black and Bletchley Park

 

After school that same day, I was listening to an interview with Sue Black on my drive home. Sue Black is a prominent software engineer, keen to promote women in computer science. She was also instrumental in the campaign to save Bletchley Park, where ten thousand people (including Alan Turing, after whom another of our buildings is named) built some of the first computers and cracked the Enigma code used by the Nazis during World War Two. More than half of the people who worked there were women. No-one had any previous experience of computers. In 2019, there are fewer women working in tech than there were in the 1960s. How has this happened? Sue Black was an inspirational figure, challenging the stereotype of the software engineer and the systems analyst to show that women have a vital role to play in the future, as well as the history, of computer science.

Professor Jo Dunkley and Henrietta Swan Leavitt

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Professor Jo Dunkley, OBE

Later that evening, I was driving back to school for governors’ meeting listening to a science podcast about how to measure the size of the universe. One of the guests was Professor Jo Dunkley, a physicist from Princeton University in America. Her research is in cosmology, studying the origins and evolution of the Universe, and she made this complex and challenging subject accessible and fascinating. She too described how, in her field, women make up 20% or less of the physicists looking at space, the stars, and cosmology, yet the women were every bit as talented and clever as any of the men. And she too had a tale of how, in the past, women made a huge contribution to the field of cosmology, astronomy and astrophysics.

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Henrietta Swan Leavitt (1868-1921)

Professor Dunkley told the story of Henrietta Swan Leavitt, an astronomer working at Harvard University in the early 20th century. She was part of a group of women known as the “Harvard Computers“, hired to carry out calculations and process astronomical data in the days before electronic computers. In those days women were not allowed to operate the telescopes themselves – this was a male only environment. Instead, they studied the photographic plates produced by the telescopes. It was in doing this that Leavitt, who was profoundly deaf following an illness, made her ground-breaking discovery. She was studying a group of stars called the Cepheid variables. These stars pulsed at different rates, and Leavitt worked out a mathematical relationship between the brightness of these stars and the frequency of their pulses. This relationship, now known as “Leavitt’s Law,” allowed astronomers to measure the distance from Earth to faraway galaxies for the first time. It also enabled future astronomers such as Edwin Hubble to firmly establish that the universe was expanding.

Gender Equality

It was a freakish coincidence that, after reading about the inequality in perceptions of Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths between boys and girls in 2019, I should then be confronted with these fantastic examples of prominent women in STEM from the present day and the past. The majority of the code-breakers of Bletchley Park were 18 year-old women, just out of school, with no prior experience of computer science – yet they contributed to cracking the Nazi codes and saving millions of lives by shortening the Second World War. The very notion of computer science was, of course, invented by a woman – Ada Lovelace, back in the 1840s. In the present day, women like Dr Sue Black are blazing a trail for women in computer science and technology.

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Ada Lovelace, painted in 1832

In the field of astronomy, cosmology and astrophysics, the foundations of our ability to measure the universe were laid by women – the Harvard Computers who were not even allowed to operate the telescopes. Prominent cosomologists such as Jo Dunkley continue their work today, including estimating the mass of the universe and studying distant galaxies.

Why is it, with this rich history and vibrant present of women in STEM, that so few girls go on to study Physics or Computing at A-level in this country? I don’t know, but I hope with examples like Lovelace, Leavitt, Black, Dunkley and Athene Donald to follow, we will see the trend reverse and true gender equality achieved.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Welcome to the Athene Donald Building

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Happy New Year! 2019 has begun with the first lessons taking place in the Athene Donald Building, our brand new facility for science and food & nutrition. On January 7th, the students of Tudor House made their way to their brand new tutor rooms, and the first classes came down throughout the day. What a difference! The new rooms are spacious, well-designed, and purpose-built for modern teaching and learning. Every room is air conditioned. The building is almost completely airtight, making it very efficient to heat and cool, whilst the entire roof is covered with solar panels, further adding to its environmental credentials. It is fully accessible, with ramps, lifts and adjustable lab and food preparation benches for wheelchair users. The corridors and staircases are wide and airy, with aspects overlooking the fields and out over the tennis courts.

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The project has been years in the planning. Funding was finally awarded by the government’s Condition Improvement Fund (CIF) in April 2017. The concrete slab base was laid in December 2017. Construction continued throughout 2018 – you can view a gallery of progress on the Academy website.

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The building’s name was decided following a student research competition in February 2018, with the winning entry championing Professor Dame Athene Donald, Professor of Experimental Physics and Master of Churchill College, Cambridge. We are delighted that Professor Donald has agreed to join us at the Academy for the building’s official opening ceremony, which will take place in March.

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Moving in!

The process of moving in has been another challenge. Science and Food do not travel light! Our staff have been amazing in packing and unpacking all the equipment, resources and materials to ensure we were ready-to-go for the first day back, and the process will continue over the coming weeks to get everything properly set up.

It has been amazing to walk up and down the corridors and see the classrooms full of students, working and learning in these wonderful facilities. I know that they appreciate them – so many of them have been to tell us how brilliant it all is! And there is even better to come…Mrs Pattison put together a superb application to the Wolfson Foundation, and was successful in securing a £50,000 grant for brand new equipment. This means that the rooms will continue to be kitted out over the coming months with state-of-the-art equipment to match the surroundings.

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Goodbye to the Tudor Block

The Athene Donald Building replaces Churchill’s original school building. The Tudor Block was built for the 402 pupils of the new Churchill Secondary Modern School in 1956. It has served us well for over sixty years, but its time is now up; contractors have been in this week to strip out furniture, fixtures and fittings in preparation for demolition over the coming months. By the time the new school year begins in September, our site will look very different!

I’d like to thank all of the staff involved in making this project a reality, especially Deputy Headteacher Mr Branch who has overseen the whole thing with unflappable dedication. The building that we now have is ample reward for all that hard work and effort; our students will reap the benefit for many years to come.

Curiosity: is there life on Mars?

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Organic molecules found on the surface of Mars (source)

Earlier this month, NASA announced that the Curiosity Rover on the Martian surface had found ancient organic molecules by drilling down into 3-billion-year-old sedimentary rocks.

“Curiosity has not determined the source of the organic molecules,” said Jen Eigenbrode of NASA. “Whether it holds a record of ancient life, was food for life, or has existed in the absence of life, organic matter in Martian materials holds chemical clues to planetary conditions and processes.”

Although the surface of Mars is inhospitable today, there is clear evidence that in the distant past, the Martian climate allowed liquid water – an essential ingredient for life as we know it – to pool at the surface. Data from Curiosity reveal that billions of years ago, a water lake inside Gale Crater held all the ingredients necessary for life.

I’m completely in awe of the Mars exploration project. It blows my mind to think that there is a machine, made by humans, rolling around on the surface of another planet and sending back pictures and information. Not only that, but the machine is drilling into Martian rocks, cooking the extracts at 500°C and analysing the vapour.

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A composite selfie taken by the Curiosity Rover on the surface of Mars (source)

The machine bears the name of one of Churchill’s values: Curiosity. It is this desire to find things out that has driven us on to this incredible achievement. The project combines Physics, Chemistry, Biology, Geography, Geology, Design, Technology, Engineering, Computing, and Mathematics just in terms of the exploration programme. The interest in these subjects started for each of the people involved when they were at school. They have built their careers on applying what they have learned to this amazing project, demonstrating creativity and ingenuity at every turn. When I look at the “selfies” taken by the rover on the surface of Mars, or I see the hole in the Martian surface left by its drill, I am staggered at what we can achieve.

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Artist’s impression of the Mars 2020 Rover on the surface (source)

There are two more missions to Mars planned in the near future: NASA’s Mars 2020 Rover and the European Space Agency’s ExoMars programme. What other secrets will they discover about the mysterious Red Planet? These missions are laying the ground work for a manned mission. Perhaps the generation of students currently at school will be the generation that first walks on the surface of another planet in our solar system. I hope they do – and it will be curiosity that takes them there.

 

Stephen Hawking

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Stephen Hawking, 1942-2018

I was saddened to hear this week of the death of theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking. He is perhaps best known for his book A Brief History of Time, which I first read when I was in the Sixth Form. His work probed the beginning and end of the universe, pushing science and human understanding to the very limits of what it is possible to imagine.

What I remember most about Stephen Hawking, however, was listening to him speak. In 2016 he gave two lectures – the Reith Lectures – on BBC Radio 4.  The lectures were fascinating, exploring the nature of black holes. You can listen to them here. But what really captured me was an answer he gave to an audience question at the end of the second lecture. He was asked: “if you had to offer one piece of advice for future generations of scientists…what would it be?” The answer he gave encapsulates Churchill’s values perfectly:

My advice to young scientists is to be curious, and try to make sense of what you see. We live in a universe governed by rational laws that we can discover and understand. Despite recent triumphs, there are many new and deep mysteries that remain for you to solve. And keep a sense of wonder about our vast and complex universe and what makes it exist. But you also must remember that science and technology are changing our world dramatically, so it’s important to ensure that these changes are heading in the right directions. In a democratic society, this means that everyone needs to have a basic understanding of science to make informed decisions about the future. So communicate plainly what you are trying to do in science, and who knows, you might even end up understanding it yourself.

And finally, Hawking’s message was one of determination:

“Be curious, and however difficult life may seem, there is always something you can do, and succeed at. It matters that you don’t just give up.”

Read more about Stephen Hawking (BBC website)

Naming the new Science and Technology building

 

 

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Plans for the new building

As regular readers will know, we are mid-way through building a £3.9m Science and Technology facility on our site, to replace the original 1956 building, which is still in current use but no longer fit for purpose. The new building – twelve Science laboratories and two classrooms for food and nutrition – is due for completion in December this year. You can see the progress to date here.

As part of our commitment to promoting gender equality and, in particular, women in STEM, we decided we wanted to name the new building after a prominent female scientist. Our aim is to inspire young women to pursue further study and careers in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths. As part of this process, groups of our Year 7 and 8 students were set the task of researching significant women in Science and Engineering, and presenting their research to a panel of staff and governors. The shortlist included Rosalind Franklin, Mary Somerville, Marie Curie, Anne McLaren and Athene Donald.

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Our student researchers

The presentations took place on Monday 19th February. They were excellent: full of detailed research and high-quality presentation skills. After a lengthy discussion, the panel unanimously agreed to name the building…

The Dame Athene Donald Building

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Professor Dame Athene Donald is Professor of Experimental Physics and Master of Churchill College, Cambridge. Aside from the wonderful link between the name of our Academy and her Cambridge college, Professor Donald is a fantastic advocate for Science, and in particular for gender equality in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths. She is a director of the university’s Women in Science, Engineering and Technology initiative to inspire and support women scientists within the university. She chairs the Athena Forum which deals with issues around career progression for women in science, technology, engineering, maths and medicine subjects in higher education.

Her research applies physics to biology, exploring the structures of polymers, biopolymers and, most recently, cellular biophysics. One of her most significant projects was researching the molecular structure of food (in particular starch molecules). She is also a viola player and a singer, with a keen interest in music. She has won over 20 awards, including a Faraday Medal from the Institute of Physics, and was given the Lifetime Achievement Award at the UKRC Women of Outstanding Achievement Awards in 2011.

Professor Donald’s life and work was researched by Year 7 students Polly Jones (7WPH) and Freya Hatherall (7WSB). They said “Athene Donald is a great inspiration to us all, for her career in science and her support for gender equality. In years to come she could influence children at Churchill Academy to pursue a career a science or engineering.” You can see their presentation below.

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The winning pair!

Professor Donald commented “I am deeply honoured that you would like to name your wonderful new building after me and of course am happy to agree. What a lovely idea to set your students such a project of research, so that more female scientists of note become familiar to them. And what a happy coincidence of the name Churchill too! I wish you all the very best with the building project and, of course, that having new labs inspires a new generation to think about careers in STEM (boys and girls).”

Well done to all the students involved, and thanks to Miss Burrows for coordinating the project.

Click here to see the coverage on the Academy’s website.