Paisley YMCA is rich in STEM capital, encouraging a wide range of opportunities for its young people, particularly in digital technology. STEM is at the heart of the centre and has invested heavily in modern digital technology, from smart materials to Micro:bits, augmented reality headsets to gaming devices, laser printers to video production resources. The lowest tech item on display is a whiteboard at the front of their impressive space but even this displays a list of the next digital learning programmes and opportunities which they have chosen to participate in. Girls Who Code is listed as their next project.
Every Wednesday night, The STEM Girls of Paisley YMCA gather to work and learn together in a digital STEM context. This group is made up of a broad range of young people from all over Renfrewshire and Glasgow. Many of them are Young STEM Leaders (YSLs), others can become YSLs should they choose to. Leadership roles among the STEM girls are not a function of age or current ability, they are simply taken on by those who feel ready.
“There are two core principles each week. Firstly, the importance of STEM and how it plays a part in everything we do. Secondly, this is about empowering young women, letting them build the confidence to leave their comfort zone using digital skills and technology. It’s female empowerment through STEM learning”.
Katie goes on to explain how a learning project on broadcasting using green screen technology gave members of the group opportunities to present in front of a camera by producing news broadcasts about alien invasions during Brexit; this helped the YSLs build self-confidence and resilience.
Joanne is a Young STEM Leader in the centre and has supported STEM engagement in many different settings. She has worked with Rainbows, Brownies and Guides to help them complete their Scottish Digital Challenge Badges. Girl Guiding Scotland became aware of the Makerspace at Paisley YMCA − a collaborative digital workspace − and approached them to facilitate sessions.
This was the perfect opportunity to put everything they do at the Makerspace into practice – peer-to-peer mentoring, youth empowerment and leadership skills. The STEM Girls were asked to plan and deliver sessions for their visitors and they rose to the challenge: producing session plans and facilitating sessions on Micro:bits, coding, digital animation, digital design, printing and music technology. To date, over 100 Rainbows, Brownies and Girl Guides have been hosted at Paisley YMCA, each achieving their Digital Challenge Badge.
Joanne, when asked about how it felt to lead these sessions and work with others, responded: “It was sometimes scary, I have learned to be patient, stay calm and I have definitely used experience of having a younger sister”.
Michelle and Chizzy are not yet YSLs themselves but they do work with them and enjoy the different style of STEM learning compared to school. Chizzy explains that she travels a long distance to come to Paisley YMCA every week but that it is well worth the journey. “The Young STEM Leaders are friendly and helpful, like a cross between students and teachers. There’s no pressure here, just people being helpful and lots of laughter”. “The STEM we do here is so interesting and makes me want to know more, Jamie the Unicorn was our favourite project because we had to think of ideas to build a model house for Jamie to live in [using] things like construction, the 3D projector and planning”. Both girls plan to become YSLs in the future.
Erin is another Young STEM leader of Paisley YMCA. When she joined two years ago one of her first activities was to deliver a presentation on women in STEM, something she is passionate about.
“There are inequalities and inequities [in STEM] and I learned about a bridge in London [Waterloo Bridge AKA The Ladies Bridge] that was built mainly by women. I was presenting to a very young group of girls, so I had to work hard to make sure the language I used was relevant to them and that they would enjoy it”.
Erin believes that being a Young STEM Leader helps her learn and teach new things to others and that she is building her communication skills.
Isla and Danielle are also YSLs in the centre. When asked what benefits there are to being involved in the programme Danielle believes that she has gained confidence speaking to groups and through having a leadership role, she’s learned how hard people work to lead a club. Danielle is hopeful of a future in STEM: “I’d like to do anything that is creative, I don’t know exactly what I want to do but I know I want to help people, vulnerable people, who maybe need help to hear or speak better”.
Isla agrees that leading learning activities is hard work but it can be very worthwhile. Her role is to “help with younger ones, work hard to keep their attention, to show presence and be a calming influence.” She also explains that the Programme, the work at Paisley YMCA and life in general are all linked:
“YSLP definitely fits with all of this, we [use technology] every day without realising it, phones and computers, it’s all STEM”.
Claire McGinley is the Programme Coordinator at the centre and a YSLP Tutor Assessor. She and her team have worked hard to build a clear culture of female empowerment, support and enjoyment through STEM Learning:
“We have built a safe space where young women can come and be themselves, be unique and express themselves through a shared love of the technology we all use. Most of these girls didn’t know each other at the start but many are now best friends. Here they have the ability to stand up and talk openly, underpinning their confidence”.
Claire, her team and the YSL Project team are working together to align their activities to YSLP. It is expected that by Summer 2020 many of the STEM Girls will gain YSLP digital badges or formal SCQF awards. Academic qualifications are not the driving force behind the YMCA’s engagement with YSLP, but such awards will give recognition to their outstanding and innovative projects.