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Girls and STEM go together

By Craig Hingston

Whilst the traditional education system in Australia has found it challenging to encourage female students to want to take part in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects there is a privately operated organisation which is defying the national trend.

Thirty eight per cent of high school students engaged in STEM programs established by the not for profit Re-Engineering Australia Foundation are girls. In one state, Tasmania, the female to male ratio is an amazing 67 to 33 per cent. And, more than half (58 per cent) of all girls say that as a result of REA they have changed their career direction to one which involves STEM.

REA tapped into the psyche of young students almost 20 years ago when it launched a series of hands-on applied learning STEM competitions. They were based on the premise of giving teenagers a highly technical challenge and providing them with real-world technology to solve it. It wasn’t a case of learning from a textbook. They had to be self motivated and pursue the knowledge they needed.

The most well known competition, which attracts upwards of 40,000 students each year, is the F1 in Schools Technology Challenge. Others include Subs in Schools, the Land Rover 4×4 Technology Challenge and Jaguar Primary School Challenge.

Founder Dr Michael Myers OAM confirmed the effectiveness of his unique methodologies with an extensive national survey of thousands of students which revealed their key drivers. Interestingly, the girls gave similar answers to the boys…

“I liked learning about cars. I liked being part of a team.”

“Designing the cars and racing them with other teams.”

“Teamwork designing the car.”

“Designing the car…manufacturing…everything!”

“I enjoyed the new experience it gave me and the hands on part.”

“I now have a much clearer understanding of STEM as a career.”

“Liked the fact that they use the same technology as industry.”

“I thought the project was cool.”

Girls of all ages have found a ‘perfect fit’ in many of the team roles, predominantly those of team manager, marketing manager and graphic designer. A number of teams feature female engineers and car designers.

The trend of female participation began early. When REA sent their first team to the F1 in Schools World Finals in England it was an all-girl team (Brisk In Pink). Since then female students have managed four teams to the World Finals competition resulting in three World Championships, a second place and a world speed record. Girls led both Australian teams to the 4×4 World Finals in 2015 and ’16 and returned with a World Championship and third place.

The first National Champions of the Subs in School program were all-girls and the newly crowned National Champions of F1 in Schools (Golden Diversity) are five girls from a high school in Launceston.

The F1 in Schools National Finals in Adelaide was a good indicator of just how well girls are embracing STEM. More than half of the teams (17 out of 30) included girls. Four were girls only and one had four girls and a lone boy. Nine teams were led by female managers and four had female design engineers.

A closer look at Golden Diversity – four 15 year olds and a 14 year old – reveals that although these young female teens weren’t aspiring to become engineers or technicians they were still intrigued by science and maths.

Their name comes from the diverse family origins of each member: Iraq, India, Vietnam, Scotland and England (plus Greece and Afghanistan for two original members who have since left).

“We saw it as a opportunity to extend our learning. Our school always taught us to take every opportunity offered to us so we decided to take a chance”, said team manager Yara Alkhalili about their simple beginnings back in 2015. They had no idea that 12 months later they would be runners-up at the National Finals and a year after that named the team that will represent their nation at the 2017 F1 in Schools World Finals.

Golden Diversity believes that women and men should receive equal opportunity in the area of STEM employment.

“Coming into such a male dominated competition, as an all girls team, we felt that we were underestimated because of our gender by other teams”, added Yarra, “The attitude towards us from other girls has been extremely positive with many young women coming up to us and saying that we have inspired them to pursue STEM opportunities. One example was the first development class team from the Illawarra to make it to the National Finals. They came up us to say that they met us at the last Nationals and we inspired them to take part in the competition. And here they are.”

The five girls aren’t yet certain which careers they will choose but they do say that exposure to STEM has opened an unimaginable number of doors.

“Through F1 in Schools we have gained important life long and transferable skills that will aid us in any career we want to pursue. It has had a considerable influence on how we approach the areas of careers we will pursue by giving us the practical and authentic learning environment in which to advance our skills and abilities. As well as giving us more opportunities within our schooling.”

Dr Myers, a Fellow of Engineers Australia, says the holistic platform of REA Foundation’s programs  address a breadth of key learning areas as well as ‘soft skills’ to maximise students’ employability,

“We link Schools, Industry, TAFE, Universities and parents in a collaborative and experiential learning environment focused on changing the metaphor of the education process. The challenge is multi-faceted and multidisciplinary. It encourages students to collaborate with industry partners within the context of their projects to learn about engineering principles such as physics, aerodynamics, design, manufacture, leadership/teamwork, media skills and project management, and apply them in a practical, imaginative, competitive and exciting way.”

 

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3 comments

  1. Kaye Lee

    What a wonderful achievement yet again. Not only do these girls fly the banner for gender equality, they show what a wonderfully diverse society we have with people of so many different ethnicities working together to advance our knowledge and capabilities.

    It shows the value of industry collaboration with education – there should be more of it. I keep hearing Holly Ransom speak saying schools must do more to encourage STEM subjects. After hearing her repeat the same trite phrases time and again I went and spoke to her asking just what exactly did she expect schools to do – no answer other than “I’m not teacher bashing”. I wanted to say you are not making any suggestions either but I didn’t want to be rude. These sort of challenges inspire kids. There should be more industry involvement – perhaps cadetships or a similar system would be useful. After all, it is these industries who will benefit from well-educated motivated young people coming through.

    Congratulations to all involved (including the teachers).

  2. Matters Not

    shows the value of industry collaboration with education – there should be more of it

    Not sure about that. While I applaud the programs as outlined above and hope that such opportunities are maintained, I am less impressed with other aspects of ‘industry collaboration’. In my experience, when representatives of industry get involved, they invariably want to narrow the curriculum. Invariably, they moan about the decline in standards: they say students can’t spell, can’t do mathematical calculations and the like.

    Remember (I think) being involved in a TAFE working party that was developing courses for the ‘hospitality’ industry. The tension became as to whether the skills developed should be broad and general OR narrow and specific. Whether the curriculum should focus on micro matters (specific skills for specific tasks) or become acquainted with broader, more generalised understandings. No need to state where industry stood.

    The demise of TAFE and the rise of private providers was generally applauded by industry. And to my mind – not for the betterment of the students nor the society as a whole. So while I am prepared to entertain ‘industry collaboration with education’ I am not prepared to sit back and let them drive the bus. Just sayin …

  3. wam

    If the majority of teachers in primary school are ignorant of stem and fluent in stereo types and the secondary schools avoid methods of assessing stem abilities for boys and girls then luck is the way for girls of ability.
    As fot TAFE there were many girls accepted into trades 45 years ago and stereotypes were being attacked but after whitlam the push disappeared. Now the private mob has their snouts snuffling with the university vice chancellors into the rabbott’s trough of vetfee help.

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