Interdisciplinary inspiration – How STEM can be taught using stories
There’s a rich seam of learning to be found at the point where STEM subjects and literature intersect, says Alison Weatherby
A few years ago, my family and I visited Bletchley Park as tourists, knowing virtually nothing except that it had once hosted Alan Turing and the Enigma code breakers. But after we left, I couldn’t stop thinking about the women of Bletchley Park.
75% of Bletchley’s workforce at the time was made up of young women, who were variously employed as codebreakers, messengers and archivists, as well as some who worked on Turing’s Bombe machine. After learning about their stressful work, long shifts and formidable puzzle solving prowess, I knew their stories could be inspirational to young girls of today – particularly those interested in science and maths.
The young women working at Bletchley were, like the character of Ellen in my book, The Secrets Act, recruited from universities and excelled in maths and sciences. Being a girl in the 1940s who loved STEM subjects wasn’t easy, or considered the ‘norm’. Joining Bletchley was a therefore a tremendous opportunity for these young women, who would otherwise have been denied holding such positions within the field.
With many of the men those positions were typically reserved for away at war, these girls were able to seize chances they could otherwise have never previously dreamed of.
As I read their personal accounts and listened to interviews, it became clear just how mixed their emotions were regarding the war as a result. Many feared for the lives of their brothers, partners or relatives, of course – but some actually wished for the war to continue, so that they could carry on working in such an exciting place.
Having worked in the tech industry myself since graduating from university, I can sympathise to some extent. It must have been amazing to enter a world where there was suddenly no glass ceiling; where they could love maths, science and technology, and explore them alongside other young women who were just like them.
It’s just as important that children, and girls especially, get to develop the confidence to explore STEM subjects now. When writing The Secrets Act, I wanted today’s kids to identify with others their age who not only loved maths, ciphers, and codes, but could also use their skills to help win a war.
When delivering presentations concerning the book’s themes to schools, I’ll introduce students to the world of Bletchley Park. I’ll highlight those young women, the work they were required to do and its place in our collective history.
After a short reading from the book, I’ll then talk about the craft of writing, and my approaches to writing and researching. If there’s time, we’ll do a short, character- based writing exercise, and then we’ll play with ciphers. I’ll unpack the difference between codes and ciphers, explain how each are used and work through some examples.
The kids love trying their hand at the puzzles portrayed in the book, and feel a huge sense of accomplishment upon finding solutions alongside their classmates.
And yet, we still see fewer girls taking up STEM subjects, both here and around the world. Using YA books, like The Secrets Act and others dealing with STEM subjects can help teachers introduce topics such as ciphers and codes in an engaging way that cuts across history and English. A teacher could potentially use the characters and narrative of The Secrets Act to discuss the Enigma code – how it was created and subsequently broken, and how Bletchley Park staff first approached the problem of an ‘unbreakable code.’
The interdependent processes adopted within Bletchley help to reinforce the importance of effective teamwork and cooperation, as well as other skills teens need to master before entering the modern workforce. By providing examples of what they can aspire to via historical and contemporary fiction, we’re showing them just how powerful STEM knowledge can be – and hopefully driving them to succeed in similar ways themselves.
Alison Weatherby is a children’s author and former Seattle-based professional in the tech industry; for more information, visit alisonweatherby.com or follow @aliwea. The Secrets Act is available now in paperback (£7.99, Chicken House)