As featured in ASBA Associate Magazine - May 2020
Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics is everywhere – it shapes our everyday lives and is critical to the jobs of the future. With the number of females in STEM still significantly under-indexed, Toorak College, a leading girls’ school on Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula, is working on closing the gender gap and inspiring the next generation of female scientists, engineers, innovators, and leaders.
Mind the gap
It is no secret that having a STEM-skilled workforce is the foundation on which the Australian workforce, industries, and the economy will prosper. Technological advancements and the pace of change continues to accelerate, and skills such as critical thinking, problem-solving, analytic capabilities, and curiosity are necessary to succeed. The workforce of the future must, therefore, make use of all available talent. Male and female.
The significant under-representation of women in STEM has been well documented in Australia, and around the world. According to the Australian Women in STEM Decadal Plan, in 2019, only 16% of the STEM-skilled workforce was female.
But the gap starts earlier. In a report developed by Deakin University and the University of Melbourne, Girls’ Future – Our Future, researchers found that Australian girls have one of the lowest STEM education participation rates in the Western world. Stereotypes, perceptions, as well as teaching and learning styles and environments, were contributing factors. In 2019, less than 25% of students studying Engineering, Physics or Computer Science in secondary school were female.
Sparking an interest
Attracting girls to STEM is necessary, and Toorak College Principal, Kristy Kendall, believes it is the role of schools and educators to ensure that girls are encouraged to pursue a STEM education and see STEM as an exciting and viable career pathway.
“To do this, we must maximise opportunities for girls to participate in STEM subjects, to be inspired, and to build their aspirations,” she says.
Over recent years, Toorak College has transformed its approach to STEM education from Early Learning through to Year 12, ensuring that girls are STEM-skilled and digital technology literate.
Key initiatives include:
- Introducing a new specialist subject, STEM-X, to students from Kindergarten to Year 6,
- Partnering with CS in Schools, an organisation co-founded by former Google executive, Dr. Hugh Williams, that connects students with coding and programming experts from industry,
- Designing a new subject for Year 7 and 8 students, Agile Learning, a problem-based project-learning subject, introducing students to the design thinking process of emphasising, investigating, ideating, prototyping and presenting ideas,
- Launching a Student Futures careers program with an increased focus on careers education, alumni connections, and industry partnerships,
- Building the Swift Science and Technology Centre, an engaging space where curiosity and creativity is ignited and where students are encouraged to work collaboratively.
If you build it, they will come
In 2016, Mrs. Kendall, with the support of the Toorak College Board of Directors, decided that building a state-of-the-art Science and Technology Centre was an essential investment for generations of female students.
Having worked with the very best educators, industry professionals, architects (McBride Charles Ryan), and builders (LBA Constructions), the Swift Science and Technology Centre was officially opened in January 2020.
The Swift Science and Technology Centre was the largest capital project in the School’s 146-year history and the brief was to mimic real-world working environments as much as possible. The building features six biology, physics and chemistry super labs, a DIGI-Zone for coding and engineering, open learning areas, university-style lecture facilities, collaborative learning spaces and breakout zones, and even an outside science laboratory and courtyard.
Mrs. Kendall’s favourite feature of the new building is its ability to enable role modelling. Glass walls and open, flexible spaces allow Year 2 science students to observe exactly what happens in a Year 12 Chemistry class. “Introducing our younger students to what STEM pathways exist is equally exciting and inspiring for the students. We are here to challenge the world and we place no limits on what can happen in this Centre!” she says.
Since announcing the build in 2016, the amount of support from the Toorak College and wider Mornington Peninsula community has been remarkable, and already more students are embracing STEM futures.
In 2020, Year 10-12 Science enrolments increased by 15%, and over 40% of the Class of 2019 were offered University placements in STEM fields. This includes Medicine, Biomedical Science, Physiotherapy, Optometry, Medical Imaging, Veterinary Medicine, Aerospace Engineering, and even Game Design!
The importance of role models
The lack of visible female role models continues to be a significant problem in attracting girls to STEM. Providing young women with real-world examples of who to model themselves after is critical.
Samantha Muller, Project Manager at LBA Constructions, played a lead role on the build of the Swift Science and Technology Centre. Her presence throughout the project was felt not only by the team she was working with, but also by Toorak College students, who were able to witness her in action and ask questions about her career or the building itself. “I was delighted to be part of the Swift Science and Technology Centre team and I hope the girls saw me achieving my career goals and think they can do it as well.”
With a background in Architecture and Construction Management, Ms Muller was very happy to share with students how a career in STEM has been both challenging and rewarding. “Every project is different and that is what I love about construction. It is really fulfilling to see something that you dedicate so much time and energy into come to life.” Her advice to girls keen on a career in Engineering? “Have a go!”
Following the mantra “you can’t be, what you can’t see,” Toorak College shines a spotlight on how many alumni have succeeded in STEM fields. In addition, in 2019, the School launched its Empower Network. Via a private online group on LinkedIn, students can connect and network with alumni in their field of interest to ask questions, seek mentoring, or even secure internship and employment opportunities.
Mrs. Kendall knows that even if girls decide to pursue STEM studies at school and university, being in the minority can be isolating and often leads to high dropout rates. “Women like to collaborate and talk to other women, and through the Empower Network and by having access to relatable role models, we are helping our students forge lifelong connections. Rather than saying the ‘fittest will survive,’ we are shaping the process and tipping the balance so that females have a more equal chance of moving into the STEM workforce and beyond.”
Industry partnerships and beyond
There are a growing number of initiatives that focus on connecting girls studying STEM with industry. For girls in secondary school, holiday programs and work experience are the most common. For Toorak College, partnering with industry means genuinely changing the game.
Taking a step back and examining the long-accepted education journey – 13 years of school, leading to university and then the workforce – inspired Mrs. Kendall to create a first-of-a-kind partnership. “I started talking to industry leaders, saying, ‘You need fabulous, fearless girls – I’ve got fabulous, fearless girls. Why don’t we cut out the middle man?’”.
Working with Downer Group, the third-largest employer in Australia, students are given a taste of life at Downer Group through work experience in Years 10-12, after which Toorak College students are guaranteed two places each year in the Road Services’ Cadet Program. Upon graduating from university, they are guaranteed employment with Downer Group at project manager level.
Class of 2019 student, Madeline McComb, is the first to secure a place and moved straight from school into eight weeks of paid work at Downer Group before starting university. “I believe this opportunity will facilitate my love of mathematics and science into a real-world working environment. I am so grateful to Toorak College and Downer for introducing me to this cadetship,” said Miss McComb.
Mrs. Kendall is already working with other science and technology companies and hopes to expand the program, “We’re putting the power in the hands of students and encouraging them to think about how they want to leap boldly forward. That is the way we will close the gap.”
Discover what makes Toorak College unique by attending our small group tours and prospective parent information evenings. Enrolments now open!