Journey to STEM: the importance of encouraging student STEM uptake

We recently spoke with local engineer Bonnie Heidrich and her past maths teacher Kay Christopher about the importance of encouraging students to follow STEM subjects.
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Student with teacher

When Civil and Environmental Engineer Bonnie Heidrich was choosing her year 12 subjects, it was her maths teacher, Kay Christopher, who encouraged her to pursue advanced mathematics. Unknowingly for Kay, this played an important step in leading Bonnie to become an engineer.

With increasing attention on female uptake of STEM featuring in discussions around the future engineering workforce, we spoke with Bonnie and Kay about the importance of diversity in STEM, and how all students can be supported in adopting and continuing in STEM subjects.

Bonnie: “Since primary school, maths had always been one of my strongest and favourite subjects, but I never envisioned myself following it through all the way to year 12, let alone into a career. I think I had the idea that following high level maths was only for exceptionally bright students.

“In year 11, however, I decided to take the specialist maths preparation classes purely because they were taught by my favourite teacher, Ms Christopher. She taught in a way I could understand, saw potential in me, and made herself available for any extra help that we needed.”

Kay described Bonnie as an excellent student who was an independent worker and showed interest in her subjects, but was not sure of her career path. Knowing Bonnie had chosen several science subjects for year 12, Kay encouraged her to consider advanced mathematics.

Kay: “Bonnie certainly had the ability, so I encouraged her to pursue it to keep her options open. I think Bonnie needed some reassurance she would be okay, as she probably lacked a little confidence at that stage – and as it turned out, I was right.”

Kay’s encouragement led Bonnie to continue learning advanced mathematics, which contributed in some part to Bonnie becoming an engineer.

Bonnie: “Throughout year 12, I had my heart set on becoming an optometrist. But when it came to finally submitting my University preferences, I started to think about what I enjoyed the most and what tertiary study aligned closest to that.

“I loved physics and maths, and by extension, problem-solving. At the time I did not really understand what an engineering degree entailed, but it seemed it would allow me to apply maths and physics in the real world. A few of my close friends were also considering Engineering, so I made a last-minute change.

“I chose Civil Engineering because I liked the idea of being involved with building physical things that can be seen and felt in our community. I feel like I took a stab in the dark becoming an engineer, but I’m glad I did.”

It is widely acknowledged that women are underrepresented in STEM industries, and that this is evident early on when girls are selecting subjects and enrolling in courses.

Bonnie: “While I do believe attitudes are changing, I think STEM subjects are still attached to the stereotype of ‘nerdy’.  As an adult, I’ll gladly take a label like that now and wear it with pride, but I think for young girls trying to find their feet in the world it can be very off-putting.”

Both Bonnie and Kay also highlighted the issue of representation and the need for more female role models in STEM.

Kay: “The lack of female role models in the classroom, at work or in the media, particularly in areas where females are underrepresented such as engineering, may be resulting in a fear of the unknown. Many students don’t know exactly what engineers do and the many and diverse areas they work in, and it also may sound more difficult than it is!”

Bonnie agreed, highlighting that the lack of role models prevents girls from seeing STEM subjects as something that can take them places, as well as a lack of understanding around engineering.

Bonnie: “Prior to entering an Engineering Degree, I really had no idea what an engineer did or what their daily life could look like, and sitting in a high school maths class I wasn’t able to see how what I was learning could be useful in life after school.”

This is something teachers can play a significant role in addressing, and Kay acknowledged that parents, teachers and career counsellors are major influences in secondary school.

Kay also referenced a number of options and initiatives available in schools to support female students in pursuing STEM subjects – including those at her own school, Mary Mackillop College.

This includes having past students like Bonnie invited to speak to current students in formal or informal settings, and providing students with opportunities to attend events such as the National Youth Science Forum and the ANSTO Big Ideas Forum.

Kay: “Mary MacKillop College is a single sex school for girls, we have female role models at all levels. We provide a nurturing environment to learn, so that student confidence and resilience increases, and work closely with past students, parents and the wider community so that girls see a future for themselves in STEM.”

Bonnie also acknowledged the need to support students to try the more difficult subjects.

Bonnie: “I think that our culture conditions girls to choose what is easy and avoid challenging themselves, and I think that often girls don’t pursue, or continue, with STEM subjects because they can be difficult. As someone who quite literally only pursued STEM because of amazing teachers, it is so important for teachers to encourage students to take STEM subjects in school.”

STEM industries stand to benefit significantly from working towards a diverse workforce, with Bonnie and Kay both touching on the increased opportunities for collaboration.

Kay: “When trying to solve complex problems, progress is often made more effectively in teams with people of diverse perspectives and experiences – the ability to see a problem differently, not just ‘being smart’, is often the key to a breakthrough.”

Creating an environment where men and women are afforded equal opportunities and that represents our diverse society also provides a greater pool or talent.

Kay: “It’s about freedom of choice rather than pushing girls into STEM careers, giving girls the same opportunities as their male counterparts. Diversity provides more access to a variety of employees with STEM skills, rather than accessing only half of the population.”

Bonnie: “I think for people to perform their best and be allowed to grow, it is so important that they feel valued and have a sense of belonging within their workplace. Diversity helps people to learn and practice empathy in the workplace and out in the community, helping us become better co-workers, teammates and leaders.”

Engineers Australia has a range of resources for students and educators available here.

Kay Christopher is a Mathematics teacher at Mary MacKillop College, Kensington SA, teaching Years 8 – 12. Kay has taught Year 12 Mathematical Methods (formerly Mathematical Studies) and Specialist Mathematics for many years and have been a SACE Moderator for Specialist Mathematics. At present, Kay is the Mathematics Leader of Learning at the College.

Bonnie Heidrich is a Civil and Environmental Engineer entering her fifth year of her engineering career, after graduating from the University of Adelaide in 2015. She works at Southfront, a small consulting company specialising in Stormwater solutions, completing infrastructure design and stormwater investigation work. Bonnie has a keen interest in integrated water management and is recently becoming passionate about encouraging females into STEM careers.

 Image: iStock