WoW Woman in STEM | Lorraine Underwood, computer science teacher, CAS coordinator, Raspberry Pi educator and Micro:bit enthusiast

Interview by Marija Butkovic @MarijaButkovic

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Lorraine Underwood is computer science teacher, CAS coordinator, Raspberry Pi educator and Micro:bit enthusiast, based in North Yorkshire. She has a degree in Computer Science, PGCE in ICT, teaches Computing at Lancaster Girls' Grammar School and computing At School coordinator for Lancaster University. She has 2 sons and a husband and loves to make things with electronics and share them online. 

Lorraine, you are both computer science teacher, CAS coordinator, Raspberry Pi educator and Micro:bit enthusiast. Can you tell us little bit more about classes and workshops you run? What does your current job role entail?

At Lancaster Girls' Grammar School I teach girls aged 11 to 18 Computer Science. The new curriculum means it's no longer about the old ICT skills of using Office. Those skills are still taught but we now also teach computing. It's a really exciting time in teaching. However the change from ICT to Computing has left a lot of teachers feeling unsure of their subject and their own subject knowledge. ICT was known as the subject with the fewest subject specialist teachers and now the subject is more about Computing it's left a lot of teachers feeling out of their depth.

This is where my job with Lancaster University comes in. Lancaster University is a Computing at School Regional Centre - 1 of 10 in the country. We run free training events for teachers run by teachers, for both primary and secondary Computing teachers. We support teachers to help deliver this new curriculum. We also have an equipment bank that teachers can borrow from to be able to access expensive computing equipment.

How did you become involved in Raspberry Pi and Micro:bits?

I first got involved with the Raspberry Pi when I went to Picademy - a free 2 day course for educators all about the Raspberry Pi. Though my husband was a fan of them from the beginning I never used them until after Picademy. At Lancaster University my boss - Dr Joe Finney and his PhD student James Devine helped develop the micro:bit alongside the BBC and other partners like Microsoft and ARM. So I was very lucky to get access to lots of micro:bits at an early stage.

What projects are you working on at the moment?

I work on so many projects all the time! My favourites are the micro:bit indicator jacket and my stair lights. The indicator jacket uses 2 micro:bits -1 connected to the handlebars of my bike that acts a remote. When I press a button it makes an arrow flash on the back of my jacket. When I press the other button, the opposite arrows flash. I'm still working on making it better and waterproof to use all the time. My stair lights are a strip of lights than run up my stairs and tell me the outside temperature in lights. If it's over 26 degrees all the lights light up! My current project is creating an 8x8x8 RGB LED cube. I will be demonstrating it at Makerfair in Newcastle in April.

How has your career progressed since your degree?

Since my degree I have gone on to a teaching qualification (the PGCE) a post graduate certificate in education. At my second school I developed the school database as well as taught ICT. Even though I was teaching Computing at that school I was constantly programming and learning new languages and skills. I've also learnt Python as this is the main language we teach in my current school.

What has been the biggest challenge in working in education in particular in STEM?

The biggest challenge for me working in education in STEM is the amount of high level content in the curriculum. I'm really lucky that the way the lessons have been split that I teach the programming side the exam to our A-Level students and another teacher teaches them the theory. I am slowly learning the theory - a lot of it I never learnt in my Computer Science degree! Or if I did I instantly forgot it! Revising all that content to be able to teach it confidently is a huge undertaking.

What are your biggest achievements to date?

My biggest achievements to date: This may sound a bit sad but I'm really happy with the community of people I follow and who follow me on Twitter. I've got these people who I chat to about Computing, Teaching and Making. We swap ideas and advice and it's a really lovely atmosphere. It's like a huge support network of friendly like minded people. I've been really inspired by a lot of them and I get really excited when people remake my makes or redo them in their own style. It's amazing when someone quotes you as their inspiration for a make. I love it.

If you had an unlimited budget for education, what would you do for your students in STEM based activities?

Unlimited budget for education: In my school I'd make the lessons more about physical computing. When the girls learn programming I want them to be able to program the lights to come on and off or move a robot. I want them to see that code is not something that just sits on a computer but has a place in the real world.

Unlimited budget for education (nationally): I'd have a free training course for all teachers to attend during school time. Give them a huge confidence boost by giving them the time to learn, a support network to rely on and resources to use in lessons.

In education, do you see a difference in boys and girls when they are learning or take on STEM subjects?

I teach at an all girls school so don't really see a difference in boys and girls! When we run outreach events we do see more boys attending. The girls who do attend tend to be super confident and really good. I think in a mixed school that's the kind of girls who choose computing - those who are already confident in the subject, love it and know they'll do well. I think girls are very conscious about taking subjects they can do well in and Computing is seen as a hard subject - maybe not something they've done before or been encouraged to take. I think that uncertainty puts a lot of girls off.

What does the #WomenInTech movement mean to you? What are the challenges of being a woman in STEM?

I love the #WomeninTech movement. I love that it is a movement that women are getting behind. Even with a Computer Science degree I've been hesitant to get involved in tech and the making community publicly on platforms like Twitter. I don't know what it is - maybe imposter syndrome. The fear that someone will say "You have no idea what you're doing" and I'll have to get my coat and go home! I've slowly gotten over that by admitting I don't always know what I'm doing! But I'm having fun, I'm making things and I'm learning. I'm also sharing my failures as well as my successes on my blog - which is not easy to do but I feel it would be a lie if I just put up the successes. Making is about failing. If you're not failing you're not learning. I haven't come across any external challenges to being a women in STEM - they're all internal. My own doubts and feelings.

In your opinion, what will be the key trends in future education of students?

In schools, particularly primary schools, we are seeing more teachers embracing physical computing as a way to teach computational thinking. They are getting students to write algorithms to move a robot around the room. They're using LEDs and batteries to do tinkering, collaboration and coding.

What is the most important piece of advice you can give to students in STEM?

I would have to say enjoy it! It's a huge field and there are so many different avenues you can go down with a career in a STEM subject. Find your passion and go for it. Find your tribe and join them!

Who are your 3 inspirational women in wearable tech and STEM?

Tanya - works at Pimoroni in Sheffield. Makes with shiny lights and is really encouraging person on Twitter.

Rachel Konichiwa - I think you might know her! She just does sooo much in wearable tech and shiny lights.

Dr Lucy Rogers - One of my first light up projects was to try and copy Lucy's light up shoes!



Twitter: @LMcUnderwood



This interview was conducted by Marija Butkovic, Digital Marketing and PR strategist, founder and CEO of Women of Wearables and co-founder of Kisha Smart Umbrella. She regularly writes and speaks on topics of wearable tech, fashion tech, IoT, entrepreneurship and diversity. Visit or follow Marija on Twitter @MarijaButkovic @Women_Wearables @GetKisha.