STEM in blossom

Issue: Volume 94, Number 21

Posted: 23 November 2015
Reference #: 1H9cyA

“Science is a part of our present and our future. Many of today’s most complex decisions require people to be engaged with science and technology–climate change is a great example. Staying informed in the STEM space is empowering, and everyone is curious inside. Let’s use those curious minds,” says Dr Victoria Metcalf, the National Coordinator of the Participatory Science Platform in the Office of the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Adviser working on A Nation of Curious Minds.

As a response to the National Science Challenge on Science in Society, Curious Minds has many actions. One of them is to encourage more girls and women into Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) careers.

The corresponding action in the Curious Minds plan is: “We will identify effective actions to influence girls’ subject choices and increase their participation in science and ICT areas of study, especially from Year 12, and encourage them to pursue science and technology careers.”

The role of diversity in STEM

Intellectual property specialist Julie Crisford believes it is important women and girls recognise the role they can play in STEM. “As Professor Shaun Hendy once said – and I’m paraphrasing – if you want to grow a great knowledge-based economy, it’s best to use the maximum amount of talent, not just 50 per cent.”

About 50 per cent of the people who use technology are women, so it makes sense that 50 per cent of the people who develop technology should also be women. Developers should be representative of their users, and there is a large amount of research which shows that diverse teams create better products, are more creative and are more productive.

“STEM, like everything, requires a balance of views, opinions and cultures. If everyone in science thought and acted the same way, then there’d be little informed discussion and debate about the avenues science could or should take. Having a balanced workforce – of genders and cultures – is important in ensuring all views, skills and opinions are represented, whether in the lab or at policy level,” says Emma Timewell, communications manager for Plant & Food Research, and national convenor for the Association for Women in Science.

Judit Klein, an iOS developer for Cactuslab, agrees.

“From a software development perspective, often it’s easy to forget that you are not the end user of your product. Your own personal bias can influence and shape a product as you’re making it. It’s good design to understand your user, and when you have a male-dominated software development team, you end up designing from the perspective of only half the world’s population.”

“Having more women working in STEM is of benefit to companies and universities, but more importantly it is of benefit to people. It benefits people with better solutions to their problems, and it benefits society as a whole because decisions and developments will be made with input from a wide range of people, rather than one specific demographic,” says Caitlin Duncan, a PhD student and researcher in the Computer Science Education Research Group at the University of Canterbury.

Don't "STEM" the flow 

“STEM is vital for everyday life. There’s very little appreciation of just how science has formed the way we live today – without scientists and scientific advances we wouldn’t have agriculture, technology, medicines, even hot and cold running water and electricity. It’s fundamental to everything we do, but in recent decades the public perception of science has gradually moved from something vital that should be respected to something scary or unnecessary,” says Emma.

“Currently women are missing out on fantastic opportunities. STEM is full of high-impact, well-paid, and intellectually rewarding jobs, and currently many women are missing out on these as the stereotypes and public perception of this field is off-putting,” says Caitlin.

“Unfortunately it’s a vicious cycle – there’s not a lot of women in STEM because there aren’t a lot of women in STEM,” says Judit. “Therefore if we have more women working in STEM, it will continue to attract more women to STEM. I worry that the focus on the doom and gloom has the opposite effect by constantly focusing on the imbalance, and I feel it drives women away. We need to focus on highlighting role models, women making a positive impact in STEM.”

The growing collection of profiles on the Curious Minds website highlight not just a variety of women, but also the expanse of opportunities in STEM. Jobs range from helicopter engineers to software testers, vet nurses to science communicators.

“Landing a job at Cactuslab was a huge boost as it was the chance to work doing what I was passionate about. It let me overcome a lot of my fears and ‘imposter syndrome’ around whether I actually belonged in the industry because suddenly every day I was having to write code and solve problems and just do it, with no time for self doubt. The best thing is being in an environment of likeminded people who are just as passionate about the same technologies,” says Judit.

At the root of job satisfaction and victories

For Victoria Metcalf, travel is one benefit of a career in science.

“Most weeks I travel somewhere to do with a project, sometimes multiple places – and in doing so I meet lots of interesting people and see interesting places. I got to talk with a school class about their ideas recently in New Plymouth, spent a hilarious three hours the other day with the bugman Ruud Kleinpaste, and also got all dressed up to attend the official launch for the Otago pilot at the Otago Museum. In the near future I’ll be visiting projects in action – it might be a group looking at stream restoration, a group building a robot, or another investigating how to make homes healthier. Viewing New Zealand from the air and talking to people fills me with many ‘I love Aotearoa’ moments.”

Dr Virginia Toy of Otago University similarly finds satisfaction in a range of ways at her job.

“I get a kick out of the personal emails I sometimes receive from younger women scientists whom I have interacted with, thanking me for helping them to develop their full potential; out of having the opportunity to do fieldwork in beautiful and remote places, and out of travelling the world and seeing aspects of foreign life during my morning runs at 5am (which is commonly the only time you have spare when attending scientific meetings).”

Julie believes that communication is an undervalued skill when it comes to STEM. 

“Today, some of the most valuable skills I use everyday are communication skills, organisation and prioritisation skills and the ability to maintain good relationships with everyone I work with. Any gaps I have in knowledge, I can look up, but the ability to get on with people, communicate clearly, have people trust me and my knowledge and get everyone to work well together is essential.”

At the same time, many of the skills she has learnt in STEM are also useful life skills.

“I believe skills that you develop while studying STEM subjects tend to be useful in all parts of life and business. Skills such as research, understanding limitations of studies, understanding how to assess whether your experiment leads to reliable and repeatable outcomes, and testing hypotheses rather than relying on your assumptions are the kind of things that you can use in all situations, whether in a certain job or in life or in business in general.”

Planting the seeds for STEM in young women

“Keep your options open by thinking broadly about your interests. Science is a part of everything we do, so I would highly recommend maintaining some science for as long as possible but also doing a range of subjects,” says Victoria.

Virginia advises thinking broadly about options in science careers.

“At high school we don’t tend to specialise like we do at university. I find students coming to university think of taking physics or biology because those are subjects they are familiar with from school. However, there are a huge number of other sciences that use aspects of each of those ‘fundamental sciences’, such as geology, botany, marine science ... At course advising I spend a lot of time raising awareness of these other sciences.”

“Have confidence in yourself and aim high! Don’t pigeon-hole yourself, even if you feel you don’t fit the mould, all types of people add value in STEM. If you don’t have the prerequisite studies, then you can do bridging courses. I had to do a summer chemistry paper to get into the first year of engineering. Where there’s a will, there’s a way!” says Kate de Ridder, an aeronautical engineer for the Royal New Zealand Air Force.

Growing New Zealand's place in the world

“Even though New Zealand is relatively small, we have a reputation for being innovative and courageous in terms of our research and outlook. It is important to create and maintain a supportive environment for nurturing undiscovered talent to ensure that we continue groundbreaking discoveries in these fields,” says Hokimate Harwood, a bicultural science researcher at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa.

“New Zealand doesn’t have a lot of land, or natural resources to draw on to support its economy, but we do have the natural resource of our innovative good of global and national society and for the future Earth,” says Virginia.

“There are already some great technology companies coming out of New Zealand whose names are becoming known beyond our shores. Ultimately, this is one area we can’t afford to fall behind in,” says Judit.

Hopefully these amazing role models can help influence more girls to consider careers in STEM.

BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero,

Posted: 4:13 pm, 23 November 2015

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