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STEMinists take grassroots approach to girls’ education

Media release

An all-female group of education and engineering students who call themselves STEMinists are finding success with a new approach to integrated science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education for girls.

Curtin University’s STEMinists − made up of 33 teaching and engineering students − have spent a year mentoring Western Australian primary school girls in workshops known as Makerspaces, where they collaborate on creative activities which incorporate STEM learning.

Dr Rachel Sheffield, a senior lecturer with Curtin’s School of Education, said the Curtin-funded project was aimed at addressing declining interest in STEM subjects in schools and low numbers of female STEM university graduates.

“The funding has enabled us to visit schools in Perth and the South-West, providing opportunities for the STEMinists to work with students on exciting STEM activities,” Dr Sheffield said.

“It has been a wonderful opportunity for us all to work closely together with academic STEMinists from the School of Education and Faculty of Science and Engineering and also work alongside our amazing teaching students.”

The name ’STEMinists’ was introduced by third year teaching student Mel Murakami when she wore a T-shirt with the word on it to a training workshop. It was then embraced by Curtin academics who are facilitating the project, including Dr Rachel Sheffield, Dr Susan Blackley, and Dr Rekha Koul of the School of Education, Associate Professor Nicoleta Maynard, Director of Engineering Education Development, and John Curtin Distinguished Professor Dawn Bennett of the School of Humanities Research and Graduate studies.

To date, the STEMinists have visited schools in Wickepin and Margaret River, as well as Perth College and Iona Presentation Primary School, with project members describing their pleasure at making a positive impact in the community by sharing their passion for STEM.

Pre-service teacher and STEMinist Nicole Fairhurst, who travelled to Wickepin, said it had been a momentous experience for all involved.

“It was our first ‘on the road’ Makerspace where we were given the opportunity and privilege to extend our reach to others outside of Perth,” Ms Fairhurst said.

“I think it would be safe for me to say that all the ladies involved had an amazing time, learnt heaps and also taught plenty to others.”

Professor Bennett said the responses from the school girls involved had been overwhelmingly positive, with many of them reporting on the post-activity surveys that they were amazed at how they could make things work – such as electric circuits.

It is hoped that the engaging, and at times challenging, activities and the experience of working alongside female role models will encourage more school girls to select STEM subjects in secondary school and beyond to pursue careers in STEM,” Professor Bennett said.

Dr Sheffield said Makerspaces were gaining recognition worldwide as an effective way to teach integrated STEM education.

“Makerspaces are fantastic because students learn to integrate their skills and knowledge from the different areas of STEM, and also to develop their creativity and teamwork skills,” Dr Sheffield said.

Increasing the number of female STEM graduates is a key focus of the Turnbull government’s National Innovation and Science Agenda, with $13 million invested to address the problem over the next five years.

Members are hoping to secure funding to extend STEMinists into the early childhood space next year – a move that would see engineering students working with pre-service teachers studying in early childhood settings.