What will it take to attract girls to STEM?

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Participants at the Questacon Invention Convention, January 2017

It’s National Science Week again, the annual celebration of science and technology, an opportunity to acknowledge the contributions of Australian scientists and provide encouragement to our young people to consider a future in science.

Increasingly, we are realizing that science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) are the fields where we are most likely to find the solutions to current challenges and problems as well as those of the future. Consequently, young people are being advised to include STEM subjects as they begin to focus on their higher education goals so they have the option of pursuing careers in STEM and being the next generation of problem-solvers.

However, there is a continuing concern that women are under-represented in science and that this is not just due to current career glass ceilings but also to girls not choosing to study STEM subjects at high school and university.

So, how do we solve the problem of getting girls interested in STEM?  Do we just try to tackle the three typical causes of disincentive for teenagers:

  1. Teasing in school
  2. A lack of encouragement
  3. Negative stereotypes [i]

No doubt, it is important to address each of the above issues in terms of current high school-aged girls but many teachers will say that a change needs to take place at an earlier age. Hence, researchers and educators are now putting huge efforts into working out how to interest girls in STEM at primary and even pre-school age.

This plan to get them while they’re young is not a new tactic. It is the way early years educators have sought to fundamentally change various social norms (e.g. sun smart behavior and healthy eating) in the next generation. 

How young do we start?  The Faculty of Human Science at the Macquarie University in Sydney are focusing on pre-school aged girls. A 2016 grant from The Ian Potter Foundation has supported the pilot of Pocket Rockets. This is a program of STEM Holiday Workshops that are designed for children aged 4–6 years and run in school holidays.

In the workshops, children participate in a variety of STEM-based activities including robotics, program puzzles and construction activities. The cost is low and all profits go towards funding STEM in early childhood research and free workshops for disadvantaged children. For more information go to OpenMQ.

The researchers plan to develop these workshops into a program that can be delivered by other educators and disseminated nationally and internationally. They will also use these workshops as a vehicle for research activities with families that will inform the improvement of STEM early education for girls – what works and what doesn’t.

On a much larger scale is Questacon’s Smart Skills Initiative, to which the Foundation has contributed $7.8m in funding over 5 years (2015–2019).  The Smart Skills Initiative is multi-faceted and includes workshops for students and professional development for teachers held around the country including regional areas. 

The Smart Skills Initiative also includes a program of Invention Conventions – three regional conventions are held throughout each year and a national convention takes place in Canberra each January. Students aged 14–18 can apply to attend these multi-day workshops allowing them to work with mentor makers and engage with innovators, inventors and entrepreneurs.  In an effort to lead by example, Questacon have actively recruited more female instructors to run the workshops and conventions to model the inspiration.

Encouragingly, one of the past participants has been inspired to create further opportunities for young people in the Northern Territory.  Cindy, 16 from Darwin, has worked with Federal MP Luke Gosling and members of the Chief Minister’s Round Table as well as local business gurus to roll out the first ever Top End Ideas Festival that was held in July 2017.

In addition to the Smart Skills outreach activities, Questacon has also developed Enterprising Australians, a communication and engagement campaign which highlights the stories of talented professionals and enthusiastic amateurs (many of them young women) who are actively working on creating innovative STEM-based solutions to a diverse set of problems.

In a similar vein, Science & Technology Australia (STA) has launched Superstars in STEM, a group of 30 of Australia’s most dynamic female scientists and technologists. The inaugural Superstars in STEM group, named in July 2017, will be equipped with advanced communication skills and the opportunity to use them in the media, at events and when speaking with decision-makers. Through Superstars in STEM, STA seeks to create role models for young women and girls and work towards equal representation in the media of men and women in STEM.

Here, at the Foundation, we are delighted to see several of our past Travel grantees in this illustrious group.

Associate Professor Muireann Irish – ARC Future Fellow, The University of Sydney (see a Case Study on her grant)

Dr Lisa Mielke – Senior Postdoctoral Fellow, Walter and Eliza Hall Institute

Dr Roisin McMahon – Research Officer, Griffith University

We were also pleased to find, when recently reviewing all our current open Science grants, that the majority have been directed towards lead female scientists. This has not been a conscious decision, but has been based on the quality of the projects and applications submitted.

The Ian Potter Foundation's philosophy of grant-making is based on Sir Ian Potter's belief in helping the young more than the old and funding prevention rather than cure or, as he often put it, building a fence at the top of the cliff rather than paying for an ambulance at the bottom.

While all these programs are definite steps in the right direction, it is clear they are only the beginning of what is needed to change the social norms around girls and women in science. There is much more to do and perhaps this is the week to start talking about it.

[i] For example, even in the popular TV show Big Bang Theory, the female characters who are scientists are seen as strange whereas the non-scientist is portrayed as the ‘normal’ female character.




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