Early childhood settings to universities are seeing a range of programs that aim to support girls in STEM.
At just 12 per cent, the percentage of female engineers in Australia is low.
And with the number of Australian women completing an engineering degree falling, from 1824 in 2014 to 1774 in 2017, attracting and retaining women in engineering is an issue of ongoing concern.
While engineering is not usually associated with kindergarten, for Professor Marilyn Fleer, Foundation Chair in Early Childhood Education and Development at Monash University, early childhood is the perfect time to make a change.
“We know from our early research that very young girls are already being turned off engineering because they’re not getting a go,” Fleer said.
“It’s not because of what teachers are doing or not doing, but due to the interactions between the boys and girls in the play space.”
In a block-construction environment, for example, Fleer’s research shows that girls tend to hang back or take on an assistant role in the construction, passing blocks and resources, whereas the more dominant boys adopt a leading role, designing and building the tower.
And it’s something that has the potential to affect girls’ opportunities later on.
“As children get older … there’s a compounding effect, in that girls go on to have less confidence and competence in STEM,” Fleer said.
“It kind of explains the [engineering gender] gap that we’ve got now.”
World at play
To increase the engagement young children have with science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), and that of girls in particular, Fleer has developed the Conceptual PlayWorld model, a new concept for teaching STEM in early childhood settings.
Part of a five-year, $3.2 million study funded by the Australian Research Council, this model uses the power of story to create play-based problem-solving scenarios, in which young children are invited to go on journeys, meet characters and solve challenges — all while investigating STEM concepts.
“[Through PlayWorlds], the children become scientists and engineers and form teams trying to solve problems,” Fleer said.
“The story hooks them in … and keeps the science, learning and engineering alive.”
The model also allows educators to direct the problem-solving and engineering opportunities more equitably.
“The educator is part of constructing these PlayWorlds … [so] they are able to be more proactive and sensitive to the children bringing particular gendered patterns to play,” Fleer said.
“Teachers can really make a big difference.”
Mind on the future
While early childhood is the perfect time to ignite an interest in engineering, it can often be a challenge to maintain this interest, particularly at the secondary school level.
The most recent statistics from the Australian Mathematical Sciences Institute show a decline in the participation rate for students studying advanced mathematics in Year 12, from 9.5 per cent in 2016 to 9.4 per cent in 2017, driven by a decrease in the proportion of female students undertaking the subject.
The Curious Minds program aims to address this issue, offering high-achieving girls in Years 9 and 10 from underrepresented areas the opportunity to explore STEM subjects and pathways.
The six-month invitational program, jointly delivered by the Australian Mathematics Trust and Australian Science Innovations, combines two residential camps with a coaching program, whereby students are paired with a female mentor from a STEM profession.
Through this program, students are able to explore STEM pathways with a series of guest lectures, interactive sessions, practicals and field trips.
Ruth Carr, Executive Director of Australian Science Innovations, said the program was developed in order to target the well-noted decline in female representation in STEM.
“The ultimate aim for [Curious Minds] is to make sure girls from underrepresented areas — from regional, rural, low socio-economic and Indigenous backgrounds — are acknowledged, are challenged and have their confidence increased,” she said.
“[It provides] an opportunity for these girls to get into the STEM pipeline and continue through that pipeline.”
And the program is showing great results. Figures from the first three years of Curious Minds’ operation show that 80 per cent of participants had increased confidence in undertaking STEM subjects, with 70 per cent of students saying that the program helped them decide that their future would be in STEM.
A well-developed support network can also matter at the tertiary level.
Undergraduate engineering student Emily Hack was reconsidering her study choices when she first heard about the Women in STEM Careers (WiSC) program at the University of Adelaide.
She was in her third year of a Bachelor of Engineering and Bachelor of Sciences dual degree and lacked confidence in her chosen study path. She saw an email advertising WiSC and during the first information session, she realised she wasn’t alone.
“The session had 100 participants all explaining what they had experienced,” Hack said.
“I realised that everyone felt the same way I felt.”
A personal and professional development program, WiSC targets female students second year and above who are enrolled in a STEM-related degree.
For Hack, a program highlight was a speed networking event, where she and her peers practiced an “elevator pitch” live on industry representatives.
“I met someone from SA Water who then offered me a work experience placement,” Hack said.
“[I went] from being unconfident at the start of the program, and wanting to drop out of engineering, to, by the end of the year, having work placement lined up and feeling very sure that this is what I wanted to be doing.”
With a graduate engineering job now secured with SA Water for 2020, Hack is grateful for her experience on the program.
She’s also motivated to make a difference to other undergraduate students in the future.
“If the opportunity arose to get involved as a professional [on the WiSC Program] I would definitely take part,” she said.
“Even if it just made the path a little easier for just one student, it would be well worth the time.”