University of Western Australia: UWA challenges STEM stereotypes at Tom Price and Newman Senior High Schools

Four female engineering students from The University of Western Australia swapped lecture halls and university life for the red dirt of the Pilbara in WA’s north recently to encourage local high school students into careers involving science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

Students Kate Kelly, Sie-Anne Waisime, Narmeen Kashif and Stephanie Cabrera Saldana were selected to represent UWA at Tom Price and Newman Senior High Schools, as part of the University’s student equity programs Aspire UWA and Girls in Engineering.

Aspire UWA has engaged with local high schools in the Pilbara since 2009 to address barriers to tertiary study and in 2021 joined with Girls in Engineering to directly address gender diversity within STEM fields.

Across the week, school students participated in a range of activities which included learning about the different types of engineering and Q&A sessions with the UWA ambassadors, where they asked about the opportunities available at university and what’s involved in tertiary study.

Kate Kelly, due to complete her Master of Professional Engineering studies next year in Mechanical Engineering, outlined the support available to students, particularly in maths – often cited by those in high school as a barrier to considering STEM pathways.

“By explaining the support mechanisms and groups that exist at university, as well as the early level maths units, students can see that finding maths hard isn’t a barrier to studying STEM,” Ms Kelly said.

The school students also spent time studying engineering skills of team-work and optimisation as they engineered their own island civilisation ensuring that the basic needs of food, water, housing and electricity were met.

And they learnt how nature can could be an inspiration for STEM professionals to help solve complex problems in a sustainable way, a practice known as biomimicry.

First year engineering student Sie-Anne Waisime said she’s passionate about changing perceptions girls had about engineering and wanted to help get them excited about what could be a challenging yet rewarding career.

“We as women face our own set of challenges and misconceptions that we need to break down,” Ms Waisime said.

“With only 16 percent of Australia’s STEM-skilled workforce being female, this stereotype has been reinforced, which is why role models for these regional visits are integral to successfully breaking down common barriers and misconceptions about STEM pathways.”

While in Tom Price, the UWA ambassadors had the opportunity to experience working life in the Pilbara, visiting the Marandoo mine site in a work placement experience organised by Rio Tinto.

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