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Schools, families and the broader community impact girls' ability to engage in STEM education and pursue STEM careers. While the same barriers also exist for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander girls, there are broader educational challenges and systemic issues that can impact how they engage with STEM.
With a deeper understanding of educators’ experiences, educators and policy makers can assist in supporting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students (particularly girls) to continue STEM education and consider future STEM-related careers.
YouthInsight asked educators about their experiences engaging Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander girls in STEM.
Gendered experiences of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander girls in STEM
The 2019–20 Youth in STEM survey highlighted that some challenges for students entering into a STEM career are strongly gendered. Girls were more likely to report lower confidence in STEM subjects than boys (particularly in engineering and technology). Girls also identified the fewer women working in STEM fields and the need for more role models as challenges to engaging in STEM.
In the 2020–21 STEM Influencers - Teachers and Career Advisers survey, educators also reported that more visible women role models are needed to help improve girls’ attitudes towards STEM. They also reported that it is important to align STEM with girls’ interests and make it more relevant to their experiences.
Some of the challenges and views from the surveys noted above were also reflected in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander girls qualitative research. The challenges mentioned in this qualitative research were raised for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students of all genders, but to a greater extent for girls.
Some of the educators interviewed identified lower confidence levels leading to self-doubt among their students, particularly amongst Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander girls in secondary school.
- emphasised the need for more relatable role models in STEM, including Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander people and particularly those who are women, local, within community and/or within the school
- raised the importance of making STEM learning more tangible and showing its real-world connections and impact.
Educators identified that adopting these approaches could help Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander girls identify educational and career pathways and opportunities in STEM. Making STEM education more relatable could also help students understand how through STEM, they will be able to help their community. This was raised as a priority area of engagement for girls.
Some interviewees raised gendered expectations as a specific challenge Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander girls faced. For example, a perception by family and community that STEM jobs are better suited to boys. Notably, some educators believed Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander girls were better placed than boys to pursue and succeed in STEM, given their often higher levels of numeracy and literacy skills.
Environmental and cultural impacts for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students in STEM
Interviewees highlighted the challenges of STEM teaching environments for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students of any gender. Key challenges for some students were cultural sensitivities that restricted their engagement in classroom scenarios that included both boys and girls and/or people from different family and language groups. Activities such as conducting experiments in front of groups and calling attention to oneself by asking or answering questions could also conflict with cultural norms.
To provide a more supportive learning environment for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, interviewees determined that there is a need to:
- facilitate environments where questions can be asked and mistakes made, such as dedicated STEM spaces for small group discussions, and conducting one-on-one learning where possible
- have both men and women teachers or teaching assistants
- enable girls and boys to work separately from one another, where appropriate within cultural context.
Interviewees highlighted a common belief among students that STEM requires high marks, which educators perceived to impact student self-esteem and engagement with further STEM study. Interviewees expressed that the current pathways into STEM can impact Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander student engagement including:
- commonly requiring formal examination
- requiring Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students move away from their community and Country
- contributing to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students feeling that they are out of place amongst majority non-Indigenous groups.
Educators observed these challenges were especially prevalent for girls who they perceive to have less access to vocational education and training (VET) STEM pathways.
The ways in which STEM are taught are also important to the engagement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students in STEM. Interviewees noted that for some Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, there is less connection with Western scientific cultural capital. For example, the accumulation of knowledge, behaviours and skills through experiences like visiting museums, science centres or watching scientific documentaries. This connection needs to be developed while continuing to incorporate Indigenous Knowledges and cultures. Interviewees highlighted that meaningful engagement with and by community was also incredibly important for engaging Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and non-Indigenous students in STEM, and was perceived to improve confidence, behaviour and engagement. Educators recognised challenges to pursuing this include:
- access to appropriate people in community can be difficult
- time and resources can be limited
- trust needs to be developed
- cultural considerations and risk of appropriation need to be taken into account
- in some circumstances, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students can also feel singled out through this approach.
Broader educational challenges for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students
Educators highlighted that the majority of challenges for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students engaging in STEM extend beyond STEM and gender, and concern challenges to broader education and career pathways. A large proportion of students taught by those interviewed, required additional support with numeracy and English literacy. This made it necessary for teachers to focus more on foundational skills rather than the specific subject matter. In STEM, some educators found students were engaged during experimental and hands-on learning but required support to stay engaged with formal writing and recording.
Interviewees shared insights about challenges such as high absenteeism rates. This is a complex issue with many contributing factors, such as students trying to manage time between their own cultural commitments and Western education, particularly where schooling takes place further away from family and Country (such as boarding). Experiences of educators showed that where disengagement contributes to absenteeism, this could be heightened within Aboriginal and Torres Strait communities due to the impacts of intergenerational trauma and distrust of Western institutions. This reinforced the importance of engaging with and developing relationships and/or trust within community. Educators explained that students may not always have the support from parents and the wider community to engage in Western education. This challenge can sometimes be heightened for girls if the subjects or careers undertaken are considered inappropriate for girls and women. Educators expressed the substantial benefits observed when trust was developed between all parties, including buy-in from the community, and family support, with students’ continued education.
Those interviewed also emphasised the importance of cultural understanding by educators in working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, such as awareness of the varying norms, lore and approaches to learning and the learning environment. The experiences of those interviewed showed that a lack of understanding by educators can have impacts on student engagement. This included, but was not limited to understanding:
- interactions between different genders and family and language groups
- ways of collaborating and sharing knowledge
- situations and tasks that can cause shame for students.
A significant number of interviewees shared their experience of how instances where some Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students may experience feelings of shame, which can effect students’ engagement, confidence and comfort seeking help, including:
- by being singled-out, particularly in large and mixed-gendered groups
- through self-doubt
- by not succeeding the first time
- through situations of disrespect, and others.
The interviewees found that some of the most important ways to understand and communicate with students were:
- through training of educators
- having local and appropriately trained Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander people in the school and classrooms
- getting to know all students’ religious and cultural backgrounds on an individual level
- engagement with communities.
The findings of this research uncover a sample of insights into the experiences and challenges of some educators teaching STEM to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students. It was clear from the research that while there are additional challenges for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander girls, many challenges to engaging with STEM are common to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students of all genders.
This research has complemented the insights uncovered through the other YouthInsight research, providing a deeper understanding and much-needed context around some Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students’ perceptions of and engagement with STEM.
About the data
This qualitative research sought the views of educators who regularly work with primary or secondary Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, on their experiences engaging Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander girls in STEM.
YouthInsight conducted 17 one-hour interviews with educators from around Australia, including regional areas and metropolitan centres. Those interviewed included a number of Aboriginal educators.
Our department commissioned YouthInsight to carry out this research to complement the 2020–21 STEM Influencers – Teachers and Career Advisers survey and expand on their 2019–20 Youth in STEM survey. In 2020–21, they also surveyed parents.
Our department and YouthInsight would like to extend our appreciation to the educators who participated and provided their insights, based upon their own experiences. This analysis and summary have been produced by non-Indigenous people and does not seek to generalise the experiences of all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Instead, we seek to share the views of the research participants to help address challenges and support Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander girls to engage in STEM education and consider future STEM-related careers.
Read about our methodology.