Who do you think of when you think of Women in STEM?
Maybe you think about Anjali Sharma, who in 2021 took on Australia’s environment minister and won, with courts finding that the government has a duty to not harm children through means of climate change, or maybe you think of Kim Ellis Hayes who is training to be Australia’s first female Astronaut? Or — and, unfortunately, this is more likely the case — these two incredible women’s names are new to you.
I have written before about the importance of Women in STEM (Campion, 2021). I have cited statistics and research that covers the fact that women are still underrepresented in STEM based areas and, even once they are working in them, are less likely to remain in them after 5 years (Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources, 2021).
The impetus for us as educators of girls to keep pressing forward with STEM initiatives and practices within our schools is forever present, and I am passionate about gaining momentum in this area and driving opportunities for the young women of Kambala, a leading P-12 girls School in Rose Bay, Sydney, offering both the IB and the HSC.
Opportunities were identified at Kambala to develop a STEM Strategy that is running from 2020-2023 and comprises three pillars.
- A ‘focus on the independent STEM disciplines’: Within this pillar we focus on curriculum development of STEM skills and initiatives, as well as helping staff to upskill their own STEM skills and knowledge in order to enhance their subject teaching. We aim to show the real-world applications of these STEM skills in all subject areas and provide links between subjects for students.
- A focus on the ‘development of STEM related capabilities and skills’: Within this pillar we aim to implement cross departmental STEM experiences, such as our most recent VADT STEM event in which Year 9 students were given the challenge to create a prototype to solve a problem in the areas of Environment, Humanity, Economy or Equality and also engage in a wide variety of co and extra-curricular STEM activities, as well as giving responsibility to students for running STEM projects across the school, such as our most recent EnviroSTEM project, our Circular Economy.
- A focus on ‘connections with industry and the broader community’: This pillar aims to expose students to the world outside of Kambala, enabling them to experience and understand STEM careers through a range of opportunities, from having access to Women in STEM, to taking part in a STEM Industry Immersion, which I have previously written about (Campion, 2021).
An underpinning theme of the first two pillars is the initiative of ‘enhancing teacher practices, improving capability and knowledge’. To facilitate this, the STEM Champions Program was started. This program gives the time and the creative freedom to staff from a range of faculties to map their curriculum and devise, develop and implement STEM opportunities. The program has been integral in the embedding of STEM across Kambala curricula.
Kambala recognised that STEM skills can be taught alongside content, and by marrying the two together through innovative and exciting projects, educators can successfully develop STEM skills in students and meet the curriculum requirements in their subject area. Integrating STEM into authentic contexts also has the effect of allowing connections to be made across curriculum areas (Corrigan, 2020).
One example of this is our Year 9 Speculative Fiction unit, planned and executed by our STEM Champion in the English Department. The aim of the Year 9 Speculative Fiction STEM unit is for students to create their own speculative narratives that respond to a real-world issue and/or pose a hypothetical solution. Students participate in an academic panel discussion devising questions to deliver to a panel of experts across the sciences in order to develop knowledge to assist them with the writing of their narratives. In 2021 the panel consisted of four experts from USyd and UNSW, across the field of science with specialties ranging from psychiatry to engineering, ethics, molecular biology, philosophy and neuroscience. Students are able to listen to and respond to panellists, asking follow-up questions, utilising Padlet to enhance their participation. The high level of engagement and thinking can be seen in the questions asked, including:
- ‘Is it possible to make a lobotomy pill?’
- ‘Is it possible to make a disease that might only affect one gender?’
- ‘If everyone paid their taxes in full (Google, Uber), could that eliminate poverty?’
- ‘Is anything else in the body stored in the location of DNA and it is possible to alter a person’s DNA with a tool like CRISPR?’
The Q&A allows students to consider the future possibilities, ethical dilemmas and moral questions that arise from their study of Speculative Fiction. From this experience students re-evaluate the plausibility of the claims within their own work, transferring real world knowledge to their narratives. The success can be seen in feedback from the students:
- “I learnt a lot about genes and viruses, and I enjoyed it. I used this in my reflection statement to justify my extended metaphor and my key tension”
- 80% of students reported that they benefited a lot or greatly from the experience.
- 89% of students reported that they learned something new.
- 77% of students wanted additional time to speak with the panel, ask more questions or have another one in the future.
A second project, this time run by our PDHPE STEM Champion, has married Kambala’s Sport Strategy and curriculum with our STEM Strategy — recognising the opportunities for girls in areas such as Biomechanics and Sport Science. Kambala has been extremely privileged to work with Sydney University’s Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences and the School of Exercise Sport Science, to create a program that has allowed students to engage with women (and men!) working in the field of Sport Science and Biomechanics and has been taken up by 34 students across Years 9 to 11.
The program will run over two years. In the first year, students are being introduced to a range of technology in the Sports Science field both at school and through excursions to Sydney University. For example, students are learning how to use XSens sensors, while monitoring one of our sporting teams at school. Students have also travelled to Sydney University to work in their laboratories, exploring technology such as the Vicon machine that captures motion, the EMG machine to measure muscle electroactivity, and the Gait Analysis machine for clinical diagnosis and muscle performance on individuals with Parkinson’s Disease.
Students have also been lucky enough to have been spoken to by many women working with the University, such as Dietitians, Physiotherapists and Sports Psychologists in order to gain a real world understanding of the application of the skills they are learning as part of the project — an aspect that is critical to show girls the opportunities that are open to them.
The second year of the project will involve students ‘choosing their own adventure’ and working on an area that they have learnt about in the first year to explore more deeply, by carrying out a research project in partnership with the University. We hope that this will be useful both to students personally, in igniting their interest, passion, critical thinking and inspiration, but also be a useful addition to their portfolio on application to university courses.
Entry to university is changing with many offering pre-entrance courses, such as ‘The Edge’ at UTS (2021) and UNSW’s GIE FEAS Program (2022) that require students to create a portfolio of work demonstrating STEM skills such as innovation and problem solving. By completing these portfolios students can gain early access to courses they may not get the ATAR to embark on. This signifies how universities are beginning to recognise the importance of not just academic success but more of the ‘whole person’ who is able to display transferrable skills.
Links with both curriculum and industry such as this are vital to success in engaging our students in the STEM fields. These projects show them what is available and how attainable these careers are for them. It gives them a taste of what these careers look like on a daily basis and broadens their horizons.
Many girls have commented, ‘I’m not into STEM’, but once realising what careers and options are available to them, they have exclaimed, ‘I didn’t know this was STEM’ and ‘this is what I want to do now!’.
Under the second pillar ‘development of STEM related capabilities and skills’ our STEM Prefects, Senior Leaders and Committee have been encouraged and supported to research and investigate projects that are important to them. From this their ‘EnviroSTEM Circular Economies’ project has been born.
A circular economy acts as a model of production and consumption, which involves minimal wastage and draws in various benefits for all parts of a system, and in this case, Kambala. The girls hope to gradually introduce features to the school which will enable Kambala to minimise waste, where products (specifically food and drink waste) which are introduced into the school are recycled, composted or put to new uses. In doing this, they will help to create a greener and more sustainable Kambala.
The STEM Student Leadership team see this initiative as a legacy which can be left by the Year 12 (2022) cohort in alignment with their Year 12 motto “Grow As We Go” as a way of supporting the Kambala community. Their holistic plan to create a more sustainable Kambala will be maintained and upgraded throughout generations of incoming prefects.
Their vertical garden was installed in February of 2022 and will provide many benefits for our school community. It will beautify the school while simultaneously being space efficient, and providing plant-life, which will help to improve the air quality through filtering pollutants and carbon dioxide out of the air. It will also produce herbs and vegetables which can be used in the school canteen and boarding house — where the maintenance of the vertical garden can be assimilated into the Year 7 Design and Technology and Science curriculums, as well as within the Junior School, creating a holistic circular economy and expanding school-wide community involvement in preserving our environment. Their next aim is to further this by installing a worm farm which will provide fertiliser free-of-cost and will enable food scraps to be composted.
By offering these opportunities from a young age, from STEM clubs and curriculum-based projects in the Junior School to initiatives in the Senior School, we are developing curious, creative and courageous students, who are passionate and skilled to take on the exciting opportunities a STEM career has to offer them. By offering these multidisciplinary events and skills students are able to prepare for jobs that are new or not yet in existence. Current workplaces require capabilities such as adaptability, design thinking, problem solving, innovation, prototyping and team work as well as the capability to apply knowledge learnt in one area to others. By developing these skills in school, students will be able to adapt and participate in the workplace as well as having resilience and the ability to unpack challenges and problems they may be faced with.
Furthermore, university courses are stepping away from the conventional approach of just learning subject knowledge, with many now incorporating ‘real world’ projects and entrepreneurship as part of their offering. Again, by building these skills from a young age we are ensuring that not only will students be successful when they are faced with these challenges but that they will also be drawn to them and interested in them.
By creating links with Industry, we are also making students aware of the opportunities that are open to them. With STEM industries changing and growing so quickly it is difficult for students to be aware of what careers are out there or even exist. By showing successful Women in a variety of industries and by offering experiences in them, we are able to peak students interests early, enabling them to explore the options open to them and discover what they enjoy, and what they do not!
It is clear that interest in these areas is something our girls are passionate about. It is our responsibility as educators to grab on to this passion and grow it, to give opportunities to discover the endless possibilities that are available in the world of STEM.
Campion, F. (2021) Cultivating Women in STEM. Alliance of Girls Schools. Retrieved from:
Corrigan, D. (2020). Implementing an integrated STEM education in schools: five key questions answered. Education Futures.
Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources. (2021). Second National data report on women and girls in STEM. Retrieved from: https://www.industry.gov.au/news/second-national-data-report-on-girls-and-women-in-stem.
Kambala, (2021). Shine 2021. Kambala.
Women’s Agenda, (2022). 4 STEM leaders who will reshape the world we know in 2022 and beyond. Retrieved from: https://womensagenda.com.au/latest/4-stem-leaders-who-will-reshape-the-world-we-know-in-2022-and-beyond/
International Earth & Space Technology Pty Ltd, (2022). Kim Ellis Hayes – Scientist, Explorer, Educator, Keynote Speaker. Retrieved from: https://kimellis.mykajabi.com/
UNSW Sydney (2022). GIE FEAS Program. Retrieved from: https://www.unsw.edu.au/engineering/study-with-us/girls-engineering-club/gie-feas-program.
UTS. (2021). Engineering and IT Early Entry Program – Edge. Retrieved from: https://www.uts.edu.au/about/faculty-engineering-and-information-technology/early-entry-program-edge.