phillipa waldegrave

STEM in the real world

At Waldegrave School for Girls in Twickenham there is a definite drive to enthuse pupils about the possibilities and opportunities that STEM subjects can offer. This progressive approach includes Waldegrave School having entered all three of GSK’s Science Challenges.

I think that studying science is inspiring and important because you get such a useful set of skills from it; transferable skills such as problem solving, working in teams, following an investigation through, analysing the implications of doing things… After being inspired by a wonderful science teacher from my school days, I went on to study a science degree and then became a science teacher.

Our biggest challenge when it comes to inspiring young people to study STEM (science, technology, engineering, maths) subjects is showing them real life applications; capturing their imagination by linking STEM subjects to what people do in sport, for example, or in industry – at a company such as GSK. From our involvement with GSK, we now try to teach science so it connects with real-world work.

Our school has entered all three previous GSK Science Challenges. [1] In 2012, the Challenge focussed on the science of anti-doping, inspired by GSK’s involvement in the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games, providing the anti-doping services. We were very lucky to have wheelchair racer, Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson come and talk to our pupils. This was followed by some practical experiments led by our teachers, then investigation work into anti-doping and drugs in sport.

Tanni truly inspired our students. With experiences like this, they become hooked and were saying, "Ah, now we get it. This is why we do practical experiments, and this is how it impacts on people in the real world.” It’s having the opportunity to give pupils that real interest.

We also entered the GSK Fast Forward Challenge in 2013, where pupils had to design a test to help improve Formula 1 drivers’ reaction times. Jenson Button was involved and our team had the experience of working with McLaren, as well as face-to-face discussions with scientists at GSK.

The icing on the cake was a visit to the McLaren Technology Centre with GSK. McLaren introduced a range of their female engineers to our students, who talked about their work with Formula 1 cars. And that, for my pupils (and me) was absolutely priceless. This particular Challenge actually inspired one of the girls to go into engineering, and that’s fantastic! We couldn’t have done that without the inspirational catalyst from GSK. The powerful thing about the GSK annual schools challenges and science resources is that they help bring the curriculum to life.

Waldegrave is a girls’ school, and back when the government gave money for specialist subjects we were a science college. Although we don’t get the money for that anymore, we keep it going. 

Science education is something that I believe in as a headteacher, so I push it.

We have a real strategic desire to buck the trend of less girls doing science than boys. We don’t have that stereotypical situation you might find in a mixed school. Out of a year group of 200 girls, generally half of them will do three science GCSEs: chemistry, biology and physics.

I think it’s great that GSK are telling people more about how they are using science to tackle some of the world’s biggest challenges to human health. It can really inspire young people.


[1] GSK’s Science Challenge is an annual schools competition that is a core part of its science education programme, and is designed to showcase science in a real-world setting, providing money-can’t-buy experiences. Find out more here: