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Outcome: Australia’s education system, from early education to tertiary, supports the active inclusion of girls and women and enables them to explore their full STEM potential.

Why focus on education?

A quality STEM education builds the foundation for everyone, including girls, to aspire to a career in a STEM field and gives all Australians the base on which to build life-long skills. Without a foundational STEM education, girls may not aspire to STEM careers and may be disadvantaged in pursuing opportunities in related fields that build on STEM knowledge, such as econometrics or architecture or in seeking re-training in STEM in later life. STEM literacy also supports girls and women to make important decisions about their life, such as making informed health and financial choices for themselves and their families.

There are a broad range of established programs promoting STEM for pre-school and school-aged young people being delivered by Government, industry and education providers. These include programs directed at children, such as Questacon’s Smart Skills initiative as well as programs such as Little Scientists which focuses on training educators and teachers to promote inquiry-based STEM learning. In 2015, all Australian education ministers agreed to the National STEM School Education Strategy 2016–2026[37] which aims to ensure that the education system provides students with a strong foundation in STEM and inspire them to take on more challenging STEM subjects. Exposure to STEM at a young age through programs designed to feed children’s curiosity for science, maths and technology can be very effective in placing girls on course for a career in STEM.[38]

Research shows that girls’ perceptions of, and engagement in STEM, are strongly influenced by both parents and teachers.[39],[40],[41] Feminine gender role stereotypes have been shown to orient girls towards developing social skills and gravitate towards activities that emphasise interpersonal relationships, whilst masculine gender role stereotypes orient boys to acquire skills, explore the physical world, and gravitate towards activities that emphasise problem solving.[42] [43] International research has also found that boys are more likely to be encouraged to pursue computing and engineering roles by parents, teachers and the media, and are more likely to be told they could be good at computer science.[44] Girls’ participation in STEM is also impacted by a lack of knowledge and awareness as to what a STEM career might involve and the influence of their peers’ perceptions.[45] Highlighting the opportunities available in STEM and challenging gender stereotypes and bias, particularly those of key influencers, is critical to engaging young girls in STEM and teachers should be supported and empowered to undertake this work.

Lower participation and engagement in STEM at primary and secondary school translates to lower enrolment in tertiary studies at undergraduate and postgraduate levels. Women in university courses often have a negative experience in this environment which leads to a sense that they do not belong in STEM career pathways. Feeling like a ‘misfit’ in STEM courses hinders women’s engagement and performance, and is associated with thoughts about leaving the field.[46],[47] Important to combating this is tertiary institutions actively supporting initiatives to remove barriers and encourage women in STEM, as well as showing the variety of STEM careers available and the different opportunities these can bring.

An education system that actively supports and encourages girls in STEM, from early education to tertiary level, will help build a workforce of Australian women who are empowered to make scientifically informed decisions and take advantage of the opportunities of the jobs of the future.

Actions

The Government has committed over $500,000 to the development of a Girls in STEM Toolkit, which will be delivered in August 2019. It will educate girls, as well as parents, teachers, career counsellors and other influencers, on opportunities in STEM and the types of careers that can arise from STEM education to break down gender stereotypes.

The Government has invested $25 million over ten years to support the greater participation of Indigenous girls in STEM. This includes $20 million for the Indigenous Girls STEM Academy, which will support up to 100 Indigenous girls each year to explore the possibilities of a STEM career through school, tertiary education and into the workforce, and $5 million to support the Stronger Smarter Institute, which will support Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women who are teachers of STEM subjects.

In 2017–18, Questacon delivered a successful pilot of Engineering is Elementary (EiE). Developed by the Museum of Science, Boston, EiE has proven successful in introducing students to the breadth of engineering careers using school aged protagonists who work alongside a mentor to solve a community problem. The majority of EiE units feature girls or women as main characters to demonstrate to girls, boys and educators that girls and women can be engineers. This positive messaging challenges the gendered stereotypes that puts downward pressure on girls’ participation in STEM. EiE also works to build the skills and confidence of teachers to deliver STEM activities in the classroom. The Government is continuing to support initiatives delivered by Questacon, with the 2019–20 Budget committing $15.1 million over three years for the expansion of Questacon’s education and outreach programs to engage more kids in science and technology.

In-school initiatives are complemented by extra-curricular activities that can provide an extension to the concepts discussed in the classroom. Through the NISA, the Government supported digIT, to support year 9 and 10 students that are underrepresented in STEM and IT subjects to engage in digital technologies and related careers. Delivered by the Australian Mathematics Trust (AMT), digIT exposes students to role models and helps them understand the many possibilities a future in IT may hold.

In late 2018, the Government extended its support for the Curious Minds program, which provides STEM summer schools and a coaching program for high potential female students in years 9 and 10. This program, delivered by the AMT in partnership with Australian Science Innovations (ASI), aims to ignite girls’ passion and participation in STEM.

In the first two years of the program, 70 per cent of girls participating in the program said that it had helped them decide that their future study will be in STEM and 80 per cent had increased their confidence in doing STEM. Through the Inspiring Australia program, the Government is also providing support to the AMT to enable the participation of Australian high school girls in the European Girls Mathematical Olympiad (EGMO). In 2018, the first time Australia has been represented at the EGMO, the four high school girls participating were recognised for their high achievements including silver and bronze medals.

The Office of the Chief Scientist’s STARportal, is Australia’s first centralised national portal for exciting and engaging STEM activities from around the country. This searchable database connects parents, students and teachers with their local and online STEM activities. The Government supported the addition of a filter that allows users to search for programs focused on supporting girls’ participation in STEM. This will help increase visibility of STEM programs available for girls, and make these programs more accessible to students, educators and parents.

The Government is helping to promote the opportunities of a STEM career for those in tertiary education. The ABC’s Women in Broadcast Technology Scholarships offers paid work experience and support for tuition costs for women undertaking electronics technology, electrical, communications engineering, or computer systems/shared technology related courses nationally, while ANSTO’s WISE School promotes careers in nuclear science and engineering to first year female undergraduate students. The Government is also providing scholarship support such as the Defence University Sponsorship scheme of which engineering is one of three general areas eligible for support. Under this scheme the Air Force supports four women each year to undertake an electrical/electronics engineering degree. Initiatives such as this are useful in supporting action in areas of particular disadvantage, such as engineering and IT.

The Government’s National Research Internships Program supports new internships for PhD students across Australia providing them the opportunity to gain industry experience and explore careers options. The program focuses on gender equity in particular providing internship opportunities for women in STEM fields.


Footnotes

  • [37] Education Council 2015, National STEM School Education Strategy 2016-2026, Education Council, viewed 13 February 2019.
  • [38] Master, A, Cheryan, S, Moscatelli, A & Meltzoff, A 2017, Programming experience promotes higher STEM motivation among first-grade girls, Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, vol. 160, pp. 92-106.
  • [39] United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation 2017, Cracking the code: Girls’ and women’s education in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), UNESCO, viewed 10 February 2019.
  • [40] Google Inc. & Gallup Inc., 2017, K-12 Computer Science Education, Google, viewed 21 January 2019.
  • [41] The Invergowrie Foundation STEM Report, Girls’ Future – Our future, The Invergowrie Foundation, 2017, viewed 9 February 2019.
  • [42] Dasgupta, N. & Stout, J.G. 2014, Girls and Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics: STEMing the tide and Broadening Participation in STEM Careers
  • [43] Ibid (Dasgupta & Stout, 2014).
  • [44] Google Inc. & Gallup Inc. 2016, Diversity Gaps in Computer Science: Exploring the Underrepresentation of Girls, Blacks and Hispanics
  • [45] Blotnicky, K, Franz-Odendaal, T & French, F. & Joy P. 2018, A study of the correlation between STEM career knowledge, mathematics self-efficacy, career interests, and career activities on the likelihood of pursuing a STEM career among middle school students, IJ STEM Ed, vol. 5 pp. 22.
  • [46] Shedlosky-Shoemaker, R., & Fautch, J. M. 2015, Who leaves, who stays? Psychological predictors of undergraduate chemistry students’ persistence. Journal of Chemical Education, vol. 92 no. 3, pp. 408-414.
  • [47] Dasgupta, N & Stout, J 2014, Girls and Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics: STEMing the tide and Broadening Participation in STEM Careers