Q&A: The new poster girls in STEM
Gender stereotypes in STEM are forming in children as young as five. To help address this issue UTS’s Women in Engineering and Information Technology are piloting a Girls in STEM Primary School program.
Five. That’s the age gender stereotypes about STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) can start to form in children. And it’s one of the reasons why education programs aimed at boosting the number of women in STEM have moved into primary schools.
Mick Rodley is a teacher at Erskineville Public School, one of the pilot schools participating in the Girls in STEM Primary School program run by UTS’s Women in Engineering and Information Technology. Mick shares his thoughts on the impact this program is having in the classroom.
Q: What does the pilot program involve at your school?
A: The program ties into our science curriculum. Each week our Year 5 and 6 students meet with Women in Engineering and Information Technology Program Coordinator Lauren Black and the female volunteers from the Faculty of Engineering and IT in the school hall, to undertake activities aimed at helping students better understand the opportunities that exist for women in STEM .
Here, Lauren and her team task the students with real-world problems that they must use a design-thinking model to address. For example one group is looking at the level of fishing waste that’s going into our oceans. Students work in groups to refine the problem, gather data, conduct an ideation process to come up with solutions, and evaluate ideas to prototype and test the solutions.
The UTS volunteers mentor students through the whole process and host discussions on their ideas. In addition, they teach them about various STEM resources such as coding LEGO Mindstorms robots and programming 8-bit microcomputers.
Q: How do you see gender stereotypes playing out in your classroom?
A: At the beginning of the program, students were asked to draw what they thought a STEM professional looked like and most drew a crazy old-man scientist, which is quite telling.
Similarly, if we're doing a coding activity, the students who say "I don't like doing this" or don't seem interested are usually the girls.
Reflecting on my own upbringing in regional New South Wales, I remember the way that stereotypes affected people’s attitudes – not just to science and tech, but most things. I think there was only one girl in my HSC Information Technology class. Since becoming an educator, it’s really obvious that such stereotypes still continue to exist. However, I would add that a lot of the parents in this school work in professional fields and many in scientific fields, so I don't see these attitudes as much here.
Q: The program is also designed to affect parents’ attitudes. What is the purpose of that?
A: As part of the program’s research component, parents were asked to participate in a survey that gauged their interest and confidence levels around STEM topics, as well as more generally about their children’s interests. We also send weekly updates to parents, in the hope of driving meaningful discussions at home by giving them questions to ask their children. For example, we help them kickstart conversations with questions like, "I heard you and your group developed a problem today in the STEM lesson. What was the problem and what can you tell me about it?"
The hope is that these conversations will help bridge the school and home divide. There are some parents who don't have much knowledge about STEM, so by bringing it to their attention they may be more inclined to encourage their children into those pathways if they show an interest in them.
The students are getting involved in a way that’s unheard of in more traditional linear tasks, and I’ve seen an increase in all of the students’ capabilities in coding and collaboration.
Teacher at Erskineville Public School
Q: How has the pilot program changed your students?
A: I’ve noticed some of the less interested students have actually become more engaged with STEM-related activities. Getting the chance to work this way with their fellow students and mentors has definitely motivated them to be more engaged in STEM work, and shown them that people who work in science, engineering, et cetera don't have to be men. The students are getting involved in a way that’s unheard of in more traditional linear tasks, and I’ve seen an increase in all of the students’ capabilities in coding and collaboration. Best of all, they’re often really excited to share their successes with their peers and teachers.
The mentoring they're receiving by participating in the design-thinking projects equips them with the confidence to better manage future learning challenges and tasks.
And, they’re getting upskilled in using some of our existing school resources which makes it easier for us to integrate these resources into our regular curriculum. For example, now that they have basic skills in coding a microbit, (a pocket-sized computer suitable for entry-level coding projects), we would be more inclined to introduce a maths lesson that incorporates the programming of microbits – so students can apply that skill to a real-world context.
Our students are really fortunate to be able to work alongside the UTS mentors. The experience is invaluable. It’d be great if this program could be rolled out more extensively, as there is so much potential to build on the success of this pilot program.