Building a future in STEM: If she can see it, she can be it

Article3 mins26 September 2019By Sarah Turner

The fastest growing jobs today require skills and knowledge in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, or STEM, and their growth is predicted to continue. Yet the uptake of STEM subjects from primary school through to tertiary and vocational studies, are on the decline in Australia, and women are poorly represented.

When the American TV program CSI was in its heyday in the early 2000s, there was intense competition to get into forensics courses, according to the Chief Executive of Science & Technology Australia, Kylie Walker.

“We called it ‘The CSI Effect’, but it was a bit awkward because there weren’t the jobs out there,” Walker says.

Before CSI, people spoke of The Scully Effect, inspired by the character Dana Scully, in the X Files. Research proved the point: the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media conducted a survey which found that women who watched the X Files regularly were 50% more likely to work in STEM, and nearly two-thirds of the women surveyed who worked in STEM also served as a role model. 

These are fascinating anecdotes but they also underscore a deeper truth, summed up by the Institute’s motto: if she can see it, she can be it.

Conversely, when there are no role models, it’s so much harder to ‘be it’.

We want to get women scientists on morning TV, visiting disadvantaged schools, and other places where scientists don’t usually pop up, to demonstrate to women that STEM is a place for them.

Kylie Walker Science & Technology Australia
STEM+

Closer to home, 65 secondary school students at Sydney’s Monte Sant’ Angelo Mercy College got to ‘see it’ when they participated in a program with centred on the construction of a new office building at 100 Mount Street in North Sydney.

The program, “STEM+”, involved girls across years 8 to 12 being able to experience a live build and immersing the students into the construction and engineering industry with the help of the program’s partner companies, Dexus, Laing O’Rourke, Rider Levett Bucknall and Savills.

“At the start of the program some of the girls didn’t understand what the engineering and commercial property industries were, but now one of the participants is doing 2nd year engineering and working for Laing O’Rourke, while two current students are doing work experience there, and half a dozen are at Dexus,” said Tom Lee, Director of Innovation and Technology at the school.

Of the 2018 cohort of Year 12 graduates from Monte, 25% went on to take science-related tertiary courses. All the girls who participated in the STEM+ program and graduated from school in 2017 or 2018, have gone on to science-related tertiary courses.

While the two-year program is now at an end, there remains a huge demand from parents and students, so the school is looking at the next iteration of the program.

With women comprising just 16% of the STEM workforce, it’s the same rationale behind Science & Technology Australia’s Superstars of STEM program which aims to encourage young women and girls to study and stay in STEM by increasing the public visibility of women in STEM.

“We want to get women scientists on morning TV, visiting disadvantaged schools, and other places where scientists don’t usually pop up, to demonstrate to women that STEM is a place for them,” Walker says.

STEM+ is a partnership initiative of 100 Mount Street, North Sydney and Monte Sant' Angelo Mercy College

STEM jobs on the rise

While there is a lot of ground to make up in terms of female representation in STEM, with an estimated 75% of the fastest growing occupations requiring skills and knowledge in STEM (according to a recent report by the Western Australian Government), it’s important to encourage both women and men to pursue STEM related careers.

The Pew Research Centre in the US says that employment in STEM occupations has grown 79% since 1990, outpacing overall U.S. job growth.

Yet, during that time, participation in challenging STEM subjects in Australian schools has declined by up to 10 percentage points in some subjects.

Australia’s Chief Scientist, Alan Finkel AO, recently commented that while there are a wide range of factors that influence students’ subject choices, and their performance, teachers have the greatest in-school influence. He says how subjects are taught and the capacity of the teacher to teach the subject, can be a motivating – or demotivating – factor.

Even the current CSIRO Chief Scientist, Cathy Foley, reportedly credits some of her success in the pursuit of science to a teacher who motivated her in high school.

Kylie Walker talks about ‘the leaky pipeline’.

“Students are disengaging from STEM at the end of primary school, we lose another cohort at the end of year 10, then again at the end of year 12, and then in tertiary studies,” Walker says.

So, it’s perhaps not surprising when you learn that 95% of primary school teachers haven’t studied maths or science beyond year 10, and a significant proportion of high school teachers are having to teach out of area.

“Fear of maths and science is a highly contagious disease,” Walker quips, which is why STEM programs that engage and inspire female students are so important.

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