Keeping Girls Engaged in STEM- Teachers Network Meeting Term 3 2019

Engaging girls in STEM subjects has been a significant concern in Australia over the last decade. Thankfully the decline is now being addressed with a number of state and federal initiatives and programs aimed specifically at getting our girls back on board.

Although interest in science subjects in girls, is high throughout the primary years, this starts to decline through secondary school. Our two speakers, Dr Laura Kuhar of CSIRO / a Superstar of STEM program and Jo Watkins, CEO of Earth Science Western Australia, came along to the Term 3 Teachers Network. They inspired the network with ideas and programs to encourage young women to choose STEM careers. Hosted by Mandurah Baptist College on August 20th, 21 educators from around Peel attended the event and provided enjoyable discussion and ideas.

Dr Laura Kuhar kicked off the session with an entertaining presentation around her own experiences as a female in STEM, and her activities engaging primary children in science. Laura is part of the CSIRO STEM Professionals in school’s program. Many teachers and educators were not aware of this program. CSIRO matches up professional scientists to work with schools to support school STEM programs. They can run after school science clubs or provide specialist support or additional lessons depending on the needs of the school. Any schools is eligible to apply to CSIRO for a local scientist. Scientists provide their services free of charge through their own industry.

Laura is a chemical engineer and hydrometallurgist with over 17 years of research experience in the minerals processing industry heading up the Process Chemistry Optimization Unit at CSIRO. She works with copper, gold, uranium and nickel mining fields and also managed the CSIRO involvement in the Geometallurgical Mapping and Mine Modelling project, an interdisciplinary research collaboration between twenty global mineral companies and four research organisations.
Laura joined CSIRO as a Research Scientist from Johannesburg, South Africa. Her PhD studies at the University of Stellenbosch, focused on the synthesis and use of magnetic nanoparticles in magnetic solvent extraction.

Laura was able to translate complex science into something we could all understand with some amazing videos of the process in action. She went on to tell us of her return to education to complete her PhD full time after working at DebTech (the research arm of De Beers Consolidated Mines), where she was involved in magnetic liquid and research into the use of magnetic cyclones, and the use of algae for mine waste water treatment. Laura discussed some of the issues around women in mining, a traditionally male area and that while at school she didn’t see many females in science role models, and this is a big problem in encouraging girls to choose STEM as a career. Her experiences as a woman in STEM led her to apply for the 2019 the Superstars of STEM program. She was successfully selected to join the program.

Superstars of STEM brings female scientists into the public arena, to provide visible role models for girls and to foster more engagement of girls in STEM. Science Technology Australia (STA) started Superstars of STEM to create a critical mass of celebrity Australian female scientists and technologists - role models for young women and girls – and to work towards equal representation in the media of women and men working in all fields in STEM.

They have equipped150 female scientists and technologists with communication skills providing opportunities in the media, on the stage and in speaking with decision makers. Laura is often headlining science talks events and during science meets parliament sessions. Through the Science Professionals in Schools’ program, Laura runs an after-school science club and shared ideas to make science more appealing – including use of colours, images, craft and opportunity for team working. All strategies that equally encourage the engagement of boys.

Our next speaker, Jo Watkins CEO of Earth Science WA, gave an inspiring talk on her work as well as a variety of opportunities in WA for females. Jo has been with ESWA since 2011 moving from her role as an Earth and Environmental (and general) science teacher with the Department of Education. Jo opened her talk saying she loves enthusing students and teachers about this wonderful subject. Recognising the need for support for teachers in Earth Sciences, ESWA, a consortium of universities, the CSIRO, Minerals Industry partners, Oil and Gas Industry partners and other public and private organisations, formed in 2003. It has had a pivotal position in the development of the Earth and Environmental Science (EES) course in 2007 providing resources, materials and teacher training and large numbers of schools have now taken this up. Jo emphasised how earth sciences is an integral part of STEM and how ESWA's programs aim to improve the quality of the talent pipeline for industry, increase the awareness of the wide range of career opportunities that earth sciences provide and to emphasise the importance of earth sciences in understanding contemporary issues.

Teachers of Earth and Environmental Science have free access to field trip support (including funding) and the Geoscientists in Schools program (linking guest presenters to schools). Jo also enables email networking to share activities and ideas and continuous collegiate support. Jo spoke about some amazing opportunities for girls in STEM such as attending the Women in Mining WA conference (WIMWA) and the Women in Technology WA (WITWA) conference. Both these organisations have programs available for female students to attend conferences and attend special sessions aimed at encouraging take up of STEM industries.

The speakers generously shared their experiences and ideas and encouraged a lively debate around some of the issues that create barriers to female uptake of STEM subjects and ideas to encourage girls in science. A recurring theme was the lack of female role models and females in senior STEM roles. Although there was acknowledgement that this was quickly changing. Participants were keen to take up the programs presented and both Jo and Laura shared their contact details with educators.

For further information visit:

CSIRO Professionals in Schools
Earth Science WA
Women in Mining WA (WIMWA)
Women in Tech + (WITWA)