Term 2 2022
- Feature article
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The future is bright
Professor Lisa Harvey-Smith is the Australian Government’s Women in STEM Ambassador. She works with business, education and government to increase the participation of women and girls in STEM education and careers. An astrophysicist with 20 years’ research experience, Professor Harvey-Smith presented ABC’s Stargazing Live and regularly appears as a science media commentator. She is the author of five popular science books.
Children begin to aspire to careers in early primary school. However, their teachers often lack the confidence to explain science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) careers, and there are societal expectations about careers and gender that can put girls off STEM. This can affect children’s awareness of just how far STEM can take them and foster negative perceptions, and this is often compounded at home with parents, carers and families. Yet girls growing up today will experience a future job market dominated by STEM skills like never before.
How can schools foster a greater understanding of the possibilities of working in STEM for girls, and what role can school libraries play in that education? As part of a two-part special on primary schools and STEM, Connections spoke with astrophysicist and author Professor Lisa Harvey-Smith about how her work as Australia’s Women in STEM Ambassador aims to change perceptions about the future world of working in STEM, and how school librarians can help.
Lisa, what are some of the preconceptions around working in STEM that young girls must deal with?
In our society, girls are conditioned from a very young age to be less engaged in STEM than boys. A US study found that parents of toddlers talk to boys three times as often about counting and numbers than they do to girls. Another study of family learning at the San Jose Children’s Museum found that parents were three times more likely to explain science to boys than to girls while visiting interactive science exhibits in a museum.
Given that many children’s toys, clothes, books and television shows also reinforce gender roles from a young age, is it any wonder that many girls struggle to see themselves as engineers, scientists, computer experts and inventors?
How big a problem is this now, and for the future?
It’s a tremendous issue for our society, as well as for women individually and collectively.
The demand for STEM-qualified workers is growing one-and-a-half times faster than other fields, yet women still make up only 28% of the STEM workforce. They also receive almost $28,000 less for full-time work in STEM than men do, and are under-represented in leadership roles.
If we don’t improve the numbers of girls with STEM qualifications, we risk condemning even more women to an uncertain financial future, exacerbating existing inequities.
There is also the knock-on effect on society. In our increasingly technological world, a large amount of our technology, software, transport, systems and built environment are high-tech. If this continues to be designed and built primarily by able-bodied men, how will we achieve a society that caters to everyone? Inclusion of everyone in the tech world is crucial to ensure that our world is safe and comfortable for all.
What can primary schools do to encourage an interest in STEM careers?
The most powerful thing primary schools can do is to establish respectful relationships between children. So many problems in our society stem from disrespect and sexism. If that goes unchallenged, it turns into harassment and violence against women in workplaces and the home.
Another thing schools can do is to challenge gender stereotypes about work. By highlighting women in technical jobs like IT, engineering, technology and trades, and empowering all children to do things with their hands (building, creating), we can start to break down the stigma around women working in these areas.
I once saw a fantastic display of STEM books in a school library with books like Rosie Revere, engineer, which challenged those stereotypes about women in hands-on technical roles.
What role do school libraries have to play?
Showcasing STEM books, especially those with diverse protagonists is a great start. Running STEM-themed Book Week dress-ups, showcasing female role models and encouraging girls to participate in active challenges (making and doing), not just intellectual reading or writing roles, is a great step.
I once saw a fantastic display of STEM books in a school library with books like Rosie Revere, engineer, which challenged those stereotypes about women in hands-on technical roles. All the kids loved it. And remember, boys also need female role models; it’s not just for the benefit of girls.
How does your work and the Future You program aim to address these preconceptions?
Future You is our national awareness-raising initiative for STEM careers, funded by the Commonwealth Government. It aims to engage children aged 8–12 years with diverse role models in exciting future STEM careers. The aim of Future You is to show children, their parents and teachers that STEM is for everyone.
Among the content we are developing is a series of short films – the Pathfinders – introducing awesome relatable women role models working in diverse areas of STEM, and linking their jobs to important challenges in our society. So far we’ve talked to a leading conservationist, a pilot, a mechanic and a digital storyteller. Lots more are planned, all of which will be available on the Future You website. These role models can help motivate kids who may not already be STEM-minded to think about how STEM fits in with their lives. We are also working with a fantastic graphic artist, Claudia Chinyere Akole, on a downloadable poster [See 'Pathfinders' for Lisa's, and details of our poster giveaway competition below!] series to accompany the Pathfinder series which can be put up in the classroom, libraries or bedroom walls, while schools will also have the opportunity to interact with the Pathfinders themselves in a series of live events.
Future You will also be drawing on STEAM content (with the A standing for Arts), including a large artistic mural called The big picture, which represents the important place of modern STEM industries in our world and into the future, and featuring 100+ STEM occupations. [More on this and our exclusive Future You giveaway in our next edition of Connections, due out in late July.] It will be accompanied by a soundscape and classroom resources, guiding children on an experiential journey through the world of STEM. We are also commissioning new STEM-related speculative fiction from leading middle-grade and young adult writers, launching creative writing and graphic art competitions, and developing a STEM challenge-based interactive game.
Any final thoughts?
By engaging with the creative and artistic elements of Future You as well as our role models, I hope that primary schools will benefit from the buzz and excitement that STEM can bring. I hope children, teachers and librarians everywhere can get involved. See you in the future!
We have three sets of the Pathfinders poster series to give away. Go to www.futureyouaustralia.com and send an email to the Future You team with Connections in the Subject line. And don’t miss our huge competition for The Big Picture in the next edition of Connections.