Aspiring scientist seven-year-old Summer from the Moreton Bay Region may not understand the importance of the International Day of Women and Girls in Science on 11 February, but already she is overcoming stereotypes.
According to University of the Sunshine Coast Education academic Natalie McMaster there is still a perception, observed as early as five years of age through to university students, that science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) are masculine subjects.
“There is the stereotype that boys should perform better and like STEM more than girls,” Ms McMaster said.
Ms McMaster, who coordinates USC’s Make Integrate Explore program in primary and secondary schools, said the International Day of Women and Girls in Science would shine a light on the value of having more female scientists.
She said Australia’s Office of the Chief Scientist recently stated that “girls and women represented untapped talent” in science and that enabling them to realise their potential was vital to harness the nation’s intellectual capital for innovation and competitiveness.
“Girls and women in STEM contribute to innovation, talent, creativity, and industriousness, which is found when we work together in diverse groups,” Ms McMaster said.
She said USC was working to overcome barriers that girls faced in considering a career in STEM, including negative attitudes that formed in early childhood and affected subject selection in high school.
“They include the belief that STEM-related school subjects are difficult, boring, and challenging, and it takes more effort to successfully complete these subjects than non-science subjects.”
Ms McMaster said addressing the gender gap in science required a variety of approaches, including providing more information to parents and carers about the relevance of STEM, and encouraging teachers to construct STEM topics and tasks in ways that better suited girls.
“Girls are interested in STEM topics that contribute to society, where they can see the beneficial impact on society,” she said.
“Authentic inquiry-based learning approaches in STEM require students to work like scientists themselves, posing research questions and can be fostered in primary schooling through hands-on, real-world experiences.
“If teachers can increase girls' science motivation and they are more inclined to ask questions that are inspired by their curiosity, this leads to self-regulated activity, the accumulation of more information, and an increase in the extent to which they value a science topic.
“Increasing the representation of girls and women in STEM involves everyone reflecting on how each of us contributes to perpetuating the issue. I think that once society sees this gender gap and recognises that it exists, we will all work so much harder to remove it.”
Meanwhile, Summer this week relished the opportunity to ask USC Senior Lecturer in Biomedical Science Dr Kate Mounsey about her career in science. An edited transcript of the interview is below.
Summer: What made you like science?
Dr Mounsey: I think I’ve always liked science but didn’t always know that I wanted to be a scientist. I always had a lot of questions about the way our world worked, like how our human body worked, what made up plants, how everything in the world actually worked.
Summer: How old were you when you decided you wanted to be a scientist?
Dr Mounsey: It wasn’t until when I was almost a grown-up that I finally realised that science was the job for me. When I was a kid, I think I first wanted to be a journalist because I really liked reading and writing. It wasn’t until I finished high school and started university that I was told by my teachers, “You’ve actually got a really good brain for science, so have you thought about being a scientist?” So at university, that’s when I started to do some science subjects and ended up really, really loving it.
Summer: What does a day at work look like for you?
Dr Mounsey: The best thing about being a scientist is every one of my days is different, so I think I have the most exciting job in the world. Some days, because I also work as a lecturer at USC, I will be teaching students about science. I might be showing them how to do certain experiments in the lab, which is always a lot of fun. Some days I will be in here, in our research labs doing experiments here at the bench. Other days I will be at my computer most of the time doing reading – I will read the work of other scientists to understand what they’ve done, and I’ll also spend a lot of time writing journal articles about our work, because when you’re doing these experiments in the lab you need to tell people about them, so you’re going to write articles and publish your work so you can communicate your scientific results to the wider community. There’s even some days where I will go out and work in the field collecting samples from animals and doing field research. I’ve done some really interesting work recently going down to Tasmania and collecting samples from wombats. So my day is never the same. It’s super exciting all the time.
Summer: What was your favourite experiment to do when you were younger?
Dr Mounsey: I think you’ve already done some of my favourite experiments already! One of the ones I always like to do at school was the one where you can make a volcano by mixing baking soda, or sodium bicarbonate, which is the actual name of that chemical, with vinegar and then it goes all foamy and explodes, so I think I’ve seen you do that one. That’s a fantastic experiment because it actually teaches a lot of basic concepts in science about chemistry.
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