STEM is a little word, with big importance. It stands for science, technology, engineering and mathematics, and it’s used to group together all those subjects that look at the physical, technical way that the world works. We all start off studying them in their simplest forms, though loads of us give up STEM along the way for more flowery subjects – and by ‘us’, we mean girls.

But perhaps more of us need to give STEM a second thought. And a third, and a fourth. Here’s why.

…because STEM subjects are fascinating

STEM can take you from the depths of the ocean to the furthest known galaxy – and everywhere in between. You can study the power of the sun, the movement of the planets, the algorithms of love, the beating of the heart, the ways in which prosthetics can replace limbs and organs, or the real secrets behind the most popular Instagram posts. Yes, really: that’s maths for you.

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“Physics was always a subject that I enjoyed – but when we got onto the more advanced subjects, everything opened up and became so much more interesting. I also realised that I loved the applied maths and the experimental side of physics,” says physicist Dr Charlotte Buckley.

“I loved my degree. Studying everything from quantum mechanics or the behaviour of light, up to the formation of stars, galaxies and the universe was incredibly rewarding.”

…because they make the world go round. Literally.

We don’t need to tell you how big a role technology has these days. Google, Facebook, Apple and Twitter basically own us – and if you can’t beat them, work for them. Or at least understand how they work.

Mathematics is, basically, problem solving. It’s the foundation of spaceships, of hydrology (that’s all things water, the reason you can have a shower each day), of architecture, accountancy – even democracy. What is voting but a numbers game? Scientists find cures for disease, contribute toward the making of everything from food to shampoo to cleaning products, and explore the universe.

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Engineering, meanwhile, is not just building bridges or working on oil rigs. “It can often have connotations of greasy overalls and spanners, but in fact [engineering] is a huge world of professions influencing the world that we live in,” says Vicki Greenwood, a chartered civil engineer and a construction project manager.

Engineering graduate Milly Belcher designed a simulated human jaw at Bristol uni to test new, chewable medicines; then, interning at Dyson, she found herself “designing, testing and evaluating products that, stereotypically, are used by women” – though ironically, the majority of her the workforce were male. Sigh. 

…because they need more women

Dyson is no exception. The numbers are scary, especially when you consider how important STEM subjects are to everything we do every day. Only 9% of the engineering workforce is female. Just 20% of A Level physics students are female, and only 14.4% of the science, tech, engineering and maths (STEM) workforce in the UK is female.

“Women represent half the workforce,” Vicki continues. “STEM subjects lead to careers that have a direct influence on our world. The world is losing a lot of innovative thinkers by not factoring in the female population.” And it has a real cost: “A balanced team will usually be more creative and have a more enjoyable and caring working environment, in my experience,” says Vicki, and indeed companies are shown to be 15% more likely to perform better if they are gender diverse.

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At school and at university, girls studying STEM are “in the minority,” says Milly. “You stand out.” Indeed, at her all-girls school, engineering was not even discussed as a possibility. “My friend and I were the first people from school to study Engineering at university, so application and career advice were limited. Later, at Dyson, she noticed her male colleagues struggle with making products like hairdryers user-friendly – “for example getting a feel for something like the weight of the product: it is difficult for men to contextualise what it feels like for a woman to use. I think that women can sometimes provide an insight that men may not have even considered.” 

…because studying STEM subjects does not make you a nerd

On the contrary, says Milly, “the majority of girls I met on my course were the opposite. They chose engineering because they enjoyed science and maths, but wanted to see a more practical, more creative side to those subjects. Outside of their studies they were heavily involved in sports, charity, etc – and had rich social lives.”

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“There is a very classic image of a woman physicist, which just isn’t true,” Charlotte agrees. “I have heard inspirational lectures from incredible women who have had to fight tooth and nail to get to the top of their profession.” The idea that everyone is super nerdy and can’t socialise is, she says (and I can second it, having seen her on a dance floor) totally not true.

…because they are NOT ‘men’s subjects’

Why do so few women go into STEM subjects? “Maybe young men are more confident in themselves and don’t mind taking on such ‘risky’ subjects, whereas girls are more likely to choose something they feel confident in,” Charlotte suggests.

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Of course there’s a perception that they are super hard – and we’re not saying it isn’t true. But that doesn’t make them ‘male’ any more than, er, cooking a soufflé is a female domain.

“There was one eccentric maths teacher who used to say ‘Girls should be in home economics’,” Charlotte laughs, “but I don’t think he was serious, and the three girls in the class would then get the best marks!” As she continued through university, “it became obvious that each person had different strengths in different areas, both technical and theoretical… I can’t really think of anything during my degree which I thought of as ‘male’ traits and ‘female’ traits.

…and it’s empowering stuff to know

After all, as the name suggests, everything starts with STEM.

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Check out STEMnet to find out more about the cool opportunities out there.

@finney_clare

Image: Hailey Hamilton

Space nerds, rejoice! There’s never been a better time to be really into space, stars, planets and other examples of astronomical goodness.

Exciting new space discoveries are being reported everyday and the mainstream media is finally really, really interested in what the universe has to offer. Like, hello, who didn’t cry when the Rosetta space probe crash-landed onto that comet, never to be seen again? Not to mention, there are a bunch of badass female astronauts paving the way for our next new role models in space (we’re looking at you Jessica Meir and Nicole Aunapu Mann) and pop culture is obsessed with all things space and sci-fi right now.

So, if you want to indulge your wannabe space scientist or inner astronaut, here are our favourite movies, books and TV shows about exploring the stars, hopping onto a spaceship or maybe even meeting some aliens along the way. To infinity and beyond!

1. Interstellar

Interstellar

This epic movie was released a few years back and marked the start of a pop culture fascination with all things space-related. And we can totally understand why. It had a stellar (sorry) cast including Matthew McConaughey, Jessica Chastain, Anne Hathaway and… well, someone else who makes a surprise appearance. Bonus points for having plenty of female astronauts for us all to aspire to!

It’s about the stuff that makes space so damn fascinating, and kinda terrifying – like exploration, black holes and a big dose of fantasy time travel. But, and this is a big but, it’s also about human relationships and experiences too. So have some tissues at the ready.

2. The Long Way To a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers

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This book has won (and is tipped to win) so many literary awards, it’s mind-boggling. The story is about Rosemary, who decides to get aboard a spaceship called the Wayfarer to see what life flying through the galaxy is like. There are plenty of people on board and adventures to be had as the Wayfarer crew decide to embark on a big mission to build a hyperspace tunnel.

There are relationships and personal dramas, some interesting takes on what it means to be a woman flying through space, as well as everything you’d expect from a book about interstellar travel – like aliens, fantastical space-time tunnels and lots of exciting, new, and sometimes scary, discoveries.

3. Firefly

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Made by the guy behind mega hit 90s/00s show Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Firefly is all about the crew of a spaceship called Firefly, the adventures they get up to – and the baddies they encounter along the way. Eek! Watch out for the REEVERS. *Shudder*.

It’s definitely in the realm of sci-fi and fantasy rather than your run-of-the-mill trip to the moon, but the show is bound to appeal to those who love space and the idea of finding alien worlds. It also features an awesome main character, River Tam, who has a troubled past and a mean roundhouse kick.

If you get really into Firefly then check out the TV show’s spin-off movie, Serenity. Or try things the other way round if you want to be all proper and chronological about it. Firefly was made before Serenity, but Serenity tells you River Tam’s backstory properly. Phew, I know, it’s hard to keep up.

4. Gravity

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Gravity is probably the entry on the list that feels the most real, despite being set up in space. Meaning, it’s not in the future, there are no aliens and everything messes up gloriously – just like it always seems to in real life.

The soundtrack is nothing short of OMG-TOTALLY-EPIC, the spacey scenery is beautiful and Sandra Bullock puts in a really solid performance as Dr. Ryan Stone, a medical engineer on her first shuttle mission. It’s edge-of-yer-seat stuff, so prepare to shout “NOOOO!” at the screen repeatedly. And if you can, get it on a big TV rather than an iPad or computer screen. The visuals will blow your little mind.

5. Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card

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This classic sci-fi novel actually started off as a short story and was so popular it was then turned into a whole SAGA. It’s less space travel in the not-so-distant-future and more about adapting to a big alien threat in the very-distant-future after we’ve nailed that whole travelling between planets thing. Eek!

The story is all about Ender Wiggin, a young boy who turns out to be a tactical genius and maybe our only hope against the potential invasion. Maybe, I mean, we’ll see. It’s a big ask, after all.

Like most classic books nowadays, this one was made into a movie – starring Harrison Ford and Ben Kingsley. Although that doesn’t tend to get as good reviews as the book does… so you’ve been warned.

6. Guardians of the Galaxy

Guardians of the Galaxy

Guardians of the Galaxy is more of a sci-fi, comic book movie than could-it-be-real-one-day? space movie. (Although we’d like to think one day the adorable little fluffy racoon thing in it might be real. Fingers crossed.)

It’s all about Peter Quill’s (although call him ‘Starlord’) alien-fuelled, laugh-out-loud-funny adventure through space where he meets all kinds of different characters, like Gamora, Draz, Groot and Rocket. Collectively, they become the Guardians of the Galaxy. If you love this, then you’ll be happy to hear there’s already a sequel in the works.

7. Chasing The Stars by Malorie Blackman

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Here’s another book that has won an award recently for the way it paints very real, human relationships in the very otherworldly realm of space.

It’s all about Olivia and her brother Aidan who are all alone on a spaceship hurtling back to earth after a virus has killed everyone else. (Sure, it’s not the most optimistic start ever.) On their way they pass another spaceship, and that’s how they meet Nathan. Nathan and Olivia fall for each other immediately and the book is all about the crazy things that happen in space and how it’s possible (or maybe isn’t possible) to fall in love out there.

8. The Martian

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The Martian was a huge blockbuster last year because it combined everything we all love about suspense movies, but casually relocated the action to Mars. The cast is great (hello Matt Damon) and it’s one of those timeless stories that will appeal to everyone – whether you’ve got a bit of a crush on all things spacey or not.

9. Star Trek

Star Trek

We know, we know. Bear with us. This might seem like something only your parents could love. But honestly, a lot of the Star Trek shows are still really watchable. You could go as far back as the first episodes and the Star Trek: The Original Series shows, or take a look at Star Trek: The Next Generation, which we personally really like here at betty. They’re just dated enough to be a bit funny – cheesy lasers and aliens, anyone? – but a lot of the stories are still really entertaining.

And if you like the characters, then go and watch past versions and catch up on the movies, too. There are plenty and lots of new ones still being made.

10. A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’engle

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A Wrinkle in Time is a sci-fi classic written for children that feels a bit like The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe for space lovers. It’s about a boy called Charles who travels through ‘a wrinkle in time’ to find his dad. But instead, he finds himself on an alien planet enslaved by a big brain called ‘It’. Definitely one more for the quirky sci-fi fans than those who just want to think about nice swirling galaxies and twinkling stars.

So what are you waiting for? Go get a taste for space… without even leaving the sofa.

@BeccaCaddy