A valuable lesson I recently learned is to never underestimate the power of an email.
It was due to an email that yesterday I found myself in Parliament’s Portcullis House giving a speech to a room full of Members of Parliament, Members of the Lords, scientists and representatives from government agencies, STEM charities, businesses, universities, schools and museums on how to improve neurodiversity in STEM. I would never have predicted that one email could lead to such an amazing opportunity to shine a light on the educational challenges faced by autistic students, many of whom are falling through the cracks of the education system.
A few months ago, I sent an email to Damian Hinds MP, the newly appointed Secretary of State for Education. In my email, I shared my educational experiences, including the challenges I faced as an autistic student with learning disabilities / differences. I highlighted that most schools are poorly equipped to support students with disabilities and that many autistic students are forced out of the education system and into home-education. I also mentioned my passion for STEM and the need to create STEM programs, work placements and apprenticeships for autistic students because only 16% of autistic adults are employed.
Much to my surprise, a few weeks later I received a response: an introduction to the Deputy Director of STEM at the Department of Education. It was not long before I met with the Deputy Director of STEM and other senior officials to discuss how to improve neurodiversity in STEM. This meeting led to an invitation from the British Science Association to speak at an event on diversity and inclusion in STEM.
On 23 March 2018, the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Diversity and Inclusion in STEM held their first meeting. I found myself on a panel with:
Chi Onwurah MP (the Shadow Minister of Industrial Strategy, Science & Innovation)
Lord David Willetts (the former Minister of Universities and Science)
Professor Louise Archer (Professor of Sociology of Education at UCL’s Institute of Education)
Katherine Mathieson (Chief Executive of the British Science Association)
Thankfully, I was the first person to speak. I was more than a little nervous about speaking to a room full of such distinguished professionals.
My speech focused on highlighting the unique educational challenges I have faced as a high-ability autistic student and student with learning disabilities, including the significant disruption to my education caused by disability-based bullying. I also focused on identifying the areas I feel need to be addressed in order to improve neurodiversity in STEM. For example, identifying, supporting and mentoring high-ability autistic students from a young age to ensure their academic strengths are nurtured and their weaknesses supported. Ensuring that specific programs are designed to develop the skills of gifted autistic mathematicians and autistic computer programmers, including the creation of apprenticeships and work placements specifically designed for autistic young people. In addition, I spoke about how many autistic students are forced out of school and into home-education, because schools lack the resources and training to support our needs. I emphasised the importance of investing in autistic young people, in developing our strengths and potential and the importance of harnessing our creative and innovative way of thinking. I concluded by emphasising that I firmly believe that our unique insights and problem-solving approaches have the potential to make significant contributions to the advancement of science. (Here is a link to my speech: https://www.qlmentoring.com/speeches).
Chi Onwurah MP- Chi Onwurah MP shared her experience of being a black, female electrical engineering student at Imperial College London. She highlighted that when she graduated in 1987, only 12% of engineers were women and that 30 years later, only 14% of engineers are women. A statistic I found very disheartening. Chi Onwurah MP spoke about her passion and commitment to increasing inclusion and diversity in STEM. Her speech was a stark reminder that most STEM fields are still predominantly male and that we are a long way from having a gender-balanced, inclusive and neurodiverse scientific community.
Lord David Willetts- Lord David Willetts commenced by stating that he had formerly served as the Minister of State for Universities and Science. He readily acknowledged that he did not have the strongest scientific background, because he had decided not to take any STEM A-levels. Lord David Willetts’ speech focused on the need to modify our current education system to allow for a more well-rounded and flexible education system that does not force 15-year old students to limit themselves into only studying three A-level subjects. He argued that a secondary school education system that focuses on a narrow speciality, rather than on providing a broad and well-balanced education, is inadequately preparing students to join the workforce of tomorrow.
Lord David Willetts’ speech particularly resonated with me. I am currently taking my IGCSE exams. I took my last history exam on Monday and will take my last English exam tomorrow. Finishing my IGCSE humanity exams will be bittersweet because I love these subjects and will miss them. Since I have chosen to focus on studying maths and physics for A levels, I will no longer be taking any classes outside of my speciality. As a 15-year old student who has a thirst for knowledge and an innate curiosity to learn, I am frustrated that so many doors are being closed. It is for this reason that I plan to go to university in the United States. I want to study in an education system that fosters academic exploration and breadth. Although I know I want to focus on maths and physics, I also want to have the freedom be able to take classes in psychology, business, Russian literature and any other classes that appeal to me.
In his speech, Lord David Willetts also highlighted that most girls who study STEM subjects at A-level plan to study medicine. However, there are over 9,000 applicants for 3,000 places. In other words, two thirds of students do not get offered a medical school place. Since students applying to medical school are not required to study A-level physics or maths, these students are precluded from being eligible to apply to programs in other STEM fields, such as physics and engineering programs. He proposed that this issue be addressed, so that the talents of girls interested in careers in STEM are not wasted if they do not succeed in getting into medical school. He argued that universities should drop the physics requirement so that they would be able to recruit the thousands of girls who had not obtained a place to study medicine.
Professor Louise Archer– Professor Louise Archer discussed the findings of a study in which she researched the science and career aspirations of 19,000 students ranging from 10 to 14 years old. Her study was particularly focused on understanding why women, working-class and certain minority ethnic groups remain under-represented in STEM, especially in engineering. She found that most young people really enjoyed science and had positive views of scientists. She also found that most young people had relatively high aspirations for professional, managerial and technical careers. However, their aspirations did not include careers in science. This was largely due to family influence. Students from families who did not have science-related qualifications and who did not have an understanding or knowledge of science or social contacts in the scientific community tended to avoid studying STEM. The study found that the biggest obstacle preventing underrepresented young people from studying STEM was that most young people and their parents had a narrow view of where a career in science could lead and that most were not aware of the transferability of science qualifications. Professor Louise Archer concluded that in order to increase inclusion and diversity in STEM we need to shift from focusing on marketing science as fun and interesting to focusing on marketing science as a career that offers endless career options and opportunities. The emphasises has to be placed on providing primary and secondary students and their families with information on the broad range of careers within the field of science and on highlighting that STEM knowledge and skills are highly transferable and can therefore be applied to any career, in or outside of STEM.
It was uplifting and inspiring to be in a room full of people who are committed to making the scientific community more inclusive and diverse. However, it was also clear that in order to bring this about, we will need our government officials to change current education policies and to fund education programs.
Given the success of my earlier email, I decided to write another one. This time I wrote to the Minister for Sport and Civil Society. A few weeks ago, I read an article about the government unlocking £330 million from dormant bank accounts to fund initiatives tackling societal challenges ranging from helping the homeless to supporting people with mental health issues. The article emphasised that the Big Lottery Fund would be given £90 million to invest in projects that help disadvantaged young people into employment. In my email to Tracey Crouch MP (Minister for Sport and Civil Society), I highlighted the social injustice that only 16% of autistic people are employed and emphasised the importance of investing in apprenticeships and job opportunities for autistic young people. It was not long before I received a personalised letter from Tracey Crouch MP inviting me to sit on the Big Lottery Fund’s Dormant Account Young Person Panel. I am really excited about being given the opportunity to represent young people with disabilities and to be in a position to have a voice on how the £90 million will be allocated.
If you would like to be part of the movement to create a more inclusive, diverse and gender-balanced school, university, scientific community or work place, please write to your local politician. Don’t underestimate the power of an email. You never know where it may lead you.