Helping girls thrive in STEM

Across Australia, the science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects on which our nation’s future success and prosperity depend are increasingly being shunned by students turned off by what they perceive as dull, difficult and distinctly “uncool” lessons.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Stacey King, QTU member and HOD Maths/Science at Mabel Park State High School, has made it her mission to re-engage students with STEM, with a particular focus on girls, increasingly the least likely to pursue that route.

She founded the Maths Science Academy (MSA), with 63 per cent of participants now being female, and introduced STEMfare to celebrate National Science Week, which saw MSA students take responsibility for delivering a robotics-based workshop with 800 local primary school students. She has also linked students with female mentors in STEM industries through the GEMS club (Girls Excelling in Maths and Science).

Last month, her success earned Stacey the Department of Education and Training’s International Women’s Day Award. But it has taken Stacey years of hard work, dedication and passion to make the impact that she has. The story begins back in 2012, when the lack of engagement was decimating the school’s STEM offerings.

Stacey recalls: “When I first became HOD, we had really poor attendance and our students were not engaged. When we asked them what their favourite subject was, they’d say HPE or sport, or even ‘lunch’. It wasn’t those academic subjects that they were loving. So I addressed the curriculum, to make it more engaging and to build in that level of curiosity.

“Girls, in particular, were not very confident in their maths and science. So much so that, when I tried to give an award to a girl who did well in an Australian maths competition, she said: ‘Please Miss, I beg you, don’t give me an award.’ I asked her why, and she said: ‘I don’t want my friends to know I’m smart.’ I quickly realised that it wasn’t just about STEM, it was about learning culture.”

Stacey used her own experience as a science-mad student to plot a way forward: “As a child, I had very nice teachers, but inside I always felt anxiety about my learning, particularly for maths and science.

“I loved science, right from when I was young, but I can probably count on my fingers how many times we did experiments in primary school, it was all very theoretically based. Even when I went to high school, we didn’t do science, we just learned about it, we didn’t apply it to anything. I didn’t get why we were doing what we were doing. How did it relate, and how do I apply it?

“A lot of girls don’t really like learning about mathematics out of context. The transmissive approach is standard in primary schools, but I don’t think that it suits girls, because they want to know why things happen and how it all connects.

“That’s why I’ve tried to flip it. We approach things from an applied maths and science perspective, so students can then see how it relates to life. We also use a lot of collaboration and good teaching skills, creating opportunities for students to work together, to collaborate, to problem-solve, and to make connections, to see how it all fits together.

“So for instance, in physics, students in grade 8 will build a Rube Goldberg device, which can be as elaborate as you like – some of them use up a whole classroom. It’s a way for them to apply their knowledge of energy transformation and transference. Instead of just reading about it, they’re applying it and then having to explain how it all links together.”

Stacey is very clear on the best way for STEM teachers to address these issues in their own schools: “You need to take a reality check of where your school is and where you want it to be. Aspiration is not just for students, it’s for teachers as well. What do we want to aspire to? What are our goals? Where do we want to get to? What are we going to do about it? Come up with a concrete plan and revise it every 12 months, set new goals.

“You need partners, you need allies. You need to work with your admin to show them your passion, your vision. You need to take risks, and you may need to ruffle a few feathers. And you can’t give up just because someone says no. You need to argue your case and explain why.”

Queensland Teachers' Journal, Vol 122 No 3, 14 April 2017, p15