Empowering female students into a STEM future

Empowering female students into a STEM future

According to TechWomen only 26 percent of those working in New Zealand’s tech sector are women – only 4% above the world average. This statistic shocked educator Jessie Robieson who’s now making it her mission to improve these numbers. One way has been through New Zealand’s first Girls in STEM Conference.

STEM or STEAM?

STEM is a curriculum based on the idea of educating students in four specific disciplines — science, technology, engineering, and mathematics — in an interdisciplinary and applied approach. Rather than teach the four disciplines as separate and discrete subjects, STEM integrates them into a cohesive learning paradigm based on real-world applications.

At Te Papa, we prefer the acronym STEAM, which adds ‘Arts’. We feel the addition of creativity is critical. STEAM is becoming just as widely used as STEM, as more people realise how important it is to integrate the arts.

NZ Girls in STEM conference

At the beginning of the year Accenture approached us with the idea of doing a NZ Girls in STEM conference.

This completely aligned with our team’s kaupapa as we love to get involved in movements that empower women into tech-focused pathways.

I was so excited to bring my knowledge to the conference which we would hold at Te Papa.

The concept was a conference for female students in years 7–8, where they would hear from inspiring women working in this industry, as well as attend workshops where they would have an opportunity to get hands-on with some of the tech.

Making solar-powered cars, 2019. Photo courtesy of Accenture

Who did we want to come?

The type of student we wanted to attend the workshop were not the students already excelling in tech and thinking about a career in tech, but the students who are creative thinkers.

We were looking for girls who thought outside of the box, but may have had quite a narrow view about what a career in STEM looks like, or maybe hadn’t even thought it was a possibility for their career, let alone something that they would be good at.

We wanted them to have a memorable experience for the day – by the end, feeling that it’s a place they belong, and at least consider for future class ideas when going into high school.

The kaupapa

The kaupapa for the day focused on these four questions, how can we:

  • Inspire girls with STEM?
  • Enable girls to see today, and the future, differently?
  • Help girls focus on leadership and manage barriers?
  • Signpost next steps?

We looked at what activities, workshops, and businesses we could engage in order to make sure these kaupapa were communicated throughout the day.

The day

The conference was on Friday 23 August. Sixty girls from Wellington’s intermediate schools came for a day of inspirational talks, workshops, and activities.

The keynote

Our keynote speaker was the amazing Jaskiran, a year 8 student from Queen Margaret’s College.

Jaskiran is already in her second year of the business she’s running called Spirit and Soul.

Spirit and Soul run workshops which empower teenage girls into usually male-dominated industries and skill bases which aligned closely with what we wanted to achieve.

Her presentation was perfectly executed, and she spoke easily to the crowd due to her exciting content and relatable nature. It was really difficult to believe that she had only turned 13 a week beforehand.

Jaskiran delivering her speech, 2019. Photo courtesy of Accenture

The workshops

The students attended three workshops, one of which I ran on behalf of Te Papa.

I really wanted to target the kaupapa of helping girls focus on leadership and manage barriers, and it was important that we used a combination of Te Papa’s collections and technology.

The girls visited the exhibition Mana Whenua and Rongowhakaata’s whare Te Hau-ki-Tūranga, where we looked at the carvings and how Rongowhakaata used patterns and symbols to create meaning.

We talked about how they essentially used a code – the different patterns all mean different things – and only those privy to the information can get an understanding of the stories behind them.

We also explored how that’s okay, as some information, even though it might be a part of who you are, you don’t want everyone to know.

We talked about how each pou represented a person – who they were, what made them unique, and what they had been through to get to where they were.

I got the girls to reflect on themselves about what made them special and how they could represent that artistically on a pou.

Then the girls used SculptGL to create their own pou of themselves, and what made them strong.

These were then uploaded to a website called Sketchfab where they were able to annotate the different patterns and explain the meaning behind them, as well as view their pou in virtual reality, making for a very unique experience.

I was ecstatic when my workshop was voted best at the end of the day by the students, as I hope that I helped them to feel inspired by who they were and what makes them special.

Girls exploring their identity through virtual carving, 2019. Photo courtesy of Accenture

Hearing from women working in the tech sector

Another part of the conference I really enjoyed was the Futures Lab. There was an entire room dedicated to exposing the students to the varied types of STEM careers there are in the working world, and getting them to have a bit more of an understanding of the different opportunities they can have when they leave school.

We had many different businesses join us, who had some great experiences for the girls. Sharesies used lollies to demonstrate compound interest, Trade Me had a quiz of some of the most influential women in tech throughout history, and Accenture brought in their robot that mixed different fruity drinks for the girls.

There was also a lot of different tech for them to play with and experience, and interesting people to talk to.

The students really enjoyed this part, and it was great to see them opening their eyes to what a career in STEM might be, and that there is more to science, technology, engineering and maths, than what is commonly attributed to them.

Listening to women from Trade Me, 2019. Photo courtesy of Accenture

An empowering experience

As the day finished, we left the students with a call to action. We got them to think about all they had learned at the conference, and what it meant for their future.

They had gained new knowledge and new understandings of where they can go with their life, and it was important to us that we make it explicit that that was the focus.

We had them fill out surveys about how they felt and what they thought they got out of the day, and it was great to see some insightful answers given to these questions, as well as the faces on the students who won prizes for their contributions to the workshops.

The girls had a really empowering experience.

Personally, I really enjoyed working with Accenture on this project. Without them, the conference wouldn’t have happened for a start, but also their team had a great vision, and we all worked really well together to produce a great outcome.

It was cool to share a similar vision with the team, and they were always open to understanding more about Te Papa, our values and ideas, and how they could benefit the conference even better.

I learned a lot from them, from their professionalism to their organisational expertise. These are all skills I will add to my personal kete and take with me into my future.

Girls having a VR experience. 2019. Photo courtesy of Accenture

Our first NZ Girls in STEM conference was great. The had a lot of fun, tried some new things, and gained inspiration from what they saw to try some new things when they go to high school, and in the future.

I loved how they all gave everything a go and tried things that for some, seemed a little out of their comfort zone. After doing a retrospective with the Accenture team and identifying some of the things we want to do differently in future, I am really excited about next year and look forward to bringing Girls in STEM to more local schools in the future.

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