Using STEAM Education To Empower Women And Strengthen Australia


|  By Maya Marcus  |

Barely a day goes by in the media without a new report on the expanding science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) skills gap in Australia. Simultaneously, girls’ interest in science, technology, engineering and maths study and career paths is seen to be dropping. The number of girls taking maths for the Higher School Certificate (HSC) is at a record low and, despite strong performance in technology subjects, girls lack confidence in their STEM abilities.

This could have a devastating impact on Australia, as strong STEM industries promise many economic benefits and will help drive innovation and productivity. At the same time, technology organisations in Australia are increasingly realising the need for graduates with transdisciplinary skills and entrepreneurial mindsets.

The Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australia stresses the need to help equip students with the knowledge and skills that maximise their potential to succeed in existing and emerging industries. The declaration acknowledges the complex environmental, economic, social and technological change occurring across the globe and asserts the value of the ability to use transdisciplinary thinking and new technologies to innovate and solve problems.

It is, therefore, the ideal time to explore the potential to bring more experiential and creative components into technology education. STEAMpunk Girls is a program emerging from the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) aiming to do exactly this.

STEAMpunk Girls will expose young women (ages 12–16) to the science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics (STEAM) industries, and give them the chance to apply transdisciplinary knowledge and skills to different problem areas. It will give young women a platform to carve out their own study and career paths, whilst also developing STEAM skills and learning about the array of relevant study pathways available to them.

The participants will have a safe space to experiment with new technology and ideas, giving them the chance to imagine career paths in emerging industries and figure out how they can find sustainable study and career pathways that align with their passions and interests. STEAMpunk Girls hopes to empower young women to pursue tertiary education and become active members of the workforce, participating in and shaping the conversation around innovation in Australia.

The concept of STEAM provides an integrated approach to education that will help students develop the critical thinking skills, creativity and transdisciplinary knowledge that they need to face contemporary societal problems. However, the development of an entrepreneurial mindset is also becoming increasingly important. The graduates of the future will need to be able to reframe problems and imagine new possibilities in an ever-changing world. They need to be able to prototype, ideate and iterate solutions – the underpinnings of an entrepreneurial skill set.

STEAMpunk Girls will draw on content and approaches from the UTS:Hatchery to introduce participants to entrepreneurial methods and ways of thinking. UTS:Hatchery is an extracurricular program that supports UTS students in developing entrepreneurial skill sets.

Students from this program will be used as coaches for STEAMpunk Girls and help to guide the young women through their projects and help to support their understanding of STEAM and entrepreneurialism. They will also act as role models for the participants, highlighting different pathways from high school into tertiary education.

STEAMpunk Girls will use the fields within the STEAM acronym as a foundation for a broader transdisciplinary approach to education. It will use a broad interpretation of ‘arts’ to include humanities and social sciences to help provide contextualised learning experiences that connect education to real-world problems.

UTS’s approach to STEAM avoids creating further silos within education by encouraging cross-pollination with other fields. STEAMpunk Girls encourages students to imagine STEAM education as a space for them to explore new possibilities and develop skill sets and approaches that will apply to all of their future study and work.

Research suggests that the solution to improving Australia’s STEM skill gap is collaboration between businesses, government and the education sector. STEAMpunk Girls brings together UTS staff, high school students, teachers and, soon, industry partners, to figure out how to effectively engage girls with STEAM. These partners are being engaged through a co-design process that positions young women at the centre of the problem development.

This co-design process began with two workshops in November 2016. High school teachers and students came to UTS to hear from UTS researchers about how STEAM can be used to approach and reframe challenges and learn about design thinking. Students were equipped with interview skills and then interviewed their school peers about what engages young women with STEAM and how it can be effectively communicated.

They brought their findings back to UTS where they were unpacked and the girls participated in a facilitated workshop to help them design the future of education. The findings, themes and ideas from these workshops have been used to build a framework for a pilot program. This framework will be taken to UTS researchers and industry partners who will work with the program team to develop a five-touch-point program that engages girls with STEAM, entrepreneurial thinking and project-based learning.

High school teachers were a vital part of the co-design process. They identified significant barriers to implementing transdisciplinary education, project-based learning and exposure to STEAM industries. These barriers are preventing teachers from supporting young women to be the innovative, entrepreneurial leaders they should be, and will be focus areas for future educational interventions developed by UTS. One of the key barriers identified by teachers was a lack of adequate time, expertise and resources for teachers to develop transdisciplinary activities and projects.

Teachers also recognised that the pressure to achieve a high Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR) is impacting the subjects that students choose, whilst the teacher running a subject or a school culture can also have a strong influence on what electives girls choose. Additionally, pressure on teachers to stick to traditional models of teaching and follow strict curriculum guidelines are making it harder for teachers to incorporate creativity and transdisciplinary activities within their subjects.

The challenges identified by the STEAMpunk Girls’ teachers are supported by recent literature examining STEAM education. This literature identifies several things that can be implemented to support teachers in implementing STEAM education, including professional development and specialised training, customisable programs, ongoing guidance, flexible assessment rubrics and partnership and collaboration opportunities. Research will be conducted during the pilot program to further examine teachers’ attitudes towards STEAM education and potential solutions to the challenges they face.

The STEAMpunk Girls’ pilot is an opportunity to test STEAM and entrepreneurial content with a range of year groups and schools from across Sydney. It will be a mixture of think tanks and project-based learning that will create an immersive experience for the students.

Teachers will be a vital resource during the program, supporting students throughout their projects and providing feedback on the content and its application to the curriculum. The next stage of STEAMpunk Girls, once the pilot is complete, will involve developing scalable educational interventions that can be run in schools across Australia to empower and educate young women. These interventions will use a multi-targeted approach focusing on high school girls, their parents and their teachers.

Maya Marcus is the program coordinator, STEAMpunk Girls and Hatchery DIY at the Innovation and Creative Intelligence Unit within the University of Technology Sydney.

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