Published: 20 June 2016

Five tips for getting girls into STEM for good

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The need for more women in physics, engineering and computer science-related professions – for example – is being pushed by universities, industry and, in this election cycle at least, politicians.

But while STEM gender equity and increasing female representation is being talked about, a lot, there’s not all that much discussion on how to get there. At Intel’s Girls in Tech: Inspiring the Next Generation of Creative, Entrepreneurial and Digital Women event at Sydney’s Vivid Ideas festival, experts got together and discussed the ‘how’.

Here are their top tips.

  1. “If you’re trying to attract more women, young students, female students, into makerspaces, for God’s sake, don’t paint [the makerspace] pink and put Hello Kitty pictures on the wall.” That’s Kate Burleigh, managing director of Intel Australia. Instead, STEM programs targeted at girls should advertise the diversity of careers available in tech industries, Burleigh said.“If your passion is medicine, technology has a role in medicine. You don’t just have to be the doctor, you could also be the person who uses technology to solve that problem. If your passion is the arts, you could be the technology director of [lights festival] Vivid, and bring Sydney to life every year, because your passion is in the arts. If your passion is teaching, we know that technology has a role to play in teaching as well. Pick your industry, it doesn’t necessarily mean if you study technology, you’re going to end up in a technology industry.”

  2. When you’re running STEM programs for young girls, and all students for that matter, don’t direct their learning, guide it, said Dr Karsten Schulz, national program director of IT education advocacy group Digital Careers Australia. “When I was at school, I came home from school and I had my little table, my little electronics engineering lab that I built up myself. I was just tinkering and I had fun. I firmly believe kids learn best when they are not directed, when they can decide their own direction, when they get a bit of support from parents and encouragement of course from their teachers. But you don’t tell them, ‘No, you can’t.’ Only say, “What can you do with that?” And it takes much longer, and it’s much harder to measure, but the long term effect is going to be so much better.”

  3. Now, this is where’s there’s a bit of disagreement. Sarah Moran is a co-founder and the marketing director of the Girl Geek Academy. She’s part of an all-female expert team dedicated to getting more women into STEM. Moran said an integral part of enticing prospective students is “thinking about we were like as young girls.” Disagreeing with Burleigh, Moran said aesthetics play a big part. “Sorry Kate, but we actually have a Hello Kitty 3D printer, and it goes off like a frog in a sock. We do look at branding and aesthetic, and the message that we’re giving young girls does add femininity. We do way more than that, but that is something that we found when we’re the only women at a maker-fest with our 3D printers with beautiful coloured filament creating things like vases and jewellery and things they [the girls] haven’t seen made before. It puts a new outlook [to the girls] on the way we can use these digital tools.”
  4. Cathie Howe, manager of Macquarie University’s Macquarie ICT Innovations Centre (MacICT) – which provides teachers STEM professional development and student workshops – said STEM education needs to start early, to foster an early love of learning. Research commissioned by Intel shows the boy-to-girl ratio in STEM-related extracurricular activities remains relatively even until Year 9, when girls start dropping out in droves. Howie said effective early teaching could help fix this. “If we start early enough with our primary school students … if we can really focus on those areas and we design learning experiences within those subjects, then perhaps we may see a turnaround in the numbers.”
  5. Continuing on from that point, Sunny South, the teacher librarian at Sydney Secondary College Leichhardt Campus and the Secretary of the School Library Association of New South Wales, explained that inspiring early STEM interest in girls involves not letting the boys take over the class. “I came to the school running what we called a tech ninja program. It’s the learners and the leaders of technology in the school. I was asked to start it. I called my first meeting. In it there was 99 per cent boys, a couple of girls, and they just totally took over the agenda. The girls felt intimidated. They didn’t come back.”