Forging the future

High school students getting hands on experience at the Powerhouse Museum

Photo: High School students participating in workshops and activities promoting STEAM at Sydney's Powerhouse Museum.

STEAMpunk Girls challenges the notion that careers in science, engineering and mathematics are just for boys.

The Lab, a digital technology learning space at Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum, is buzzing with creativity and excitement. At one station, a group of girls is exploring a magical virtual world. Another group seated around several iMac computers is creating pixel art, their funky bitmapped graphics projected on the wall like an evolving digital backdrop. And that’s just for starters.

More than 60 young women from four high schools are participating in STEAMpunk Girls, a pilot program co-designed by the UTS Innovation, Entrepreneurship & Creative Intelligence Unit, female high school students and teachers to extend STEM education. Launched in May this year, it inspires entrepreneurship and innovation in science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics (STEAM) among young women aged 12 to 16, and hopes to promote greater participation in these fields.

It’s a timely kickstart. A recent government report revealed a historic low in STEM studies among secondary school students and dire implications for the nation’s economic future. “Australia is experiencing a STEM skills shortage,” says Maya Marcus, STEAMpunk Girls program lead. Furthermore, women comprise only 30 per cent of the fields’ workforce. That’s a lot of untapped potential which could boost economic and career opportunities, benefit industries with diversified skillsets, and broaden the talent pool.

With a focus on entrepreneurship, the participants at STEAMpunk Girls identify and develop solutions to real-world issues in their community. “STEAM empowers students with interdisciplinary skills, including critical thinking, problem solving, and design thinking,” Marcus explains. “Students can explore opportunities at the intersection of the fields and investigate different possibilities.” It will prepare young women for future careers with 21st century fluencies and transferrable skills, and position them for success in a rapidly changing workplace.

Solutions for a better world

Collaboration has been essential in creating a relevant and engaging program for the young age group. UTS worked with 25 female students and their teachers from three high schools to co-design the program last November; four UTS students were also employed as coaches. After being introduced to STEAM case studies and role models, the girls interviewed their peers about the topic.

Their insights were invaluable. Robotics and space travel were popular subjects, Marcus recalls, but notes, “a lot of them were very interested in the impact they’re having on the world.” It led to a focus on ‘future earth’ for the pilot program, drawing from this year’s National Science Week education theme.

“With the future earth, there are going to be problems — overpopulation, a dramatically changing workforce, issues like that,” says Laurence Presland, a UTS student coach studying a combined Bachelor of Science in IT, Bachelor of Creative Intelligence and Innovation. “We immerse the girls in these issues and let them decide what they want to pursue.”

Organised into teams, their projects are creative and diverse. Among them: a robotic bin that mingles with students at school to curb littering and pollution; outdoor classrooms for children to indulge in the environment in response to urbanisation; a campaign to raise awareness of poverty in developed countries; and a video game that explores water wastage and demand at school and in the greater community.

To track the learning process, Katy Lumkin, Head Teacher of Learning Innovations at Liverpool Girls’ High School, introduced an online communication tool to capture the discussion and share material between UTS staff and students, and between participating teachers and students.

She believes STEAMpunk initiative challenges a common perception that women can’t be engineers. Teachers also benefit from the program. “Undergoing research with UTS would broaden aspects of how I could integrate my staff with STEAM, look at design thinking as a component and use it as a way of understanding and unpacking complex problems.”

Hands-on at the Powerhouse

Once the projects were established, UTS reached out to Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum to deliver a workshop and activities for participants: “a mix of showing them a bunch of cool things to get them excited about technology,” says Marcus, “but also giving them skills they can apply to their own projects.”

“STEAMpunk made everything interesting — it makes bookwork interesting”
– Maria, Killarney Heights High School

The day is a blast. To promote a design mindset and expertise, the girls create pixel art, stickers and mould 3D objects using thermoplastics. “I’m seeing girls drawing preliminary poster designs they could use in their projects,” observes Presland. Campaign logo stickers and even a Harry Potter magic wand are among the objects crafted.

An introduction to coding enables participants to control a light panel. Girls commandeer a Mars Rover across a red landscape via an iPad. Digital artist Inge Berman’s talk on videogame design and her virtual reality game Kept is a hit with students — for many, it is their first experience with the immersive technology. “The VR was fun: the computer skills, the video gaming, the graphics and art design are so amazing,” exclaims Emily from Bankstown Girls’ High School. “I would look into that as a job.”

The activities also help build confidence skills and teamwork, says Aditi, who attends Liverpool Girls’ High School. “There are girls from four different schools. You talk to people and you get to know them, the way they think. Everyone’s unique, and that’s what you get to see when you discuss topics.”

Maria from Killarney Heights High School believes hands-on activities in turn encourage the academic side of studies. “I’m more engaged in classes when we’re going through physics,” she explains. “STEAMpunk Girls made everything interesting — it makes bookwork interesting.”

Finding future opportunities

The students’ prototypes and pitches were showcased at a UTS event in August as a part of Sydney Science Week, but that’s not the end of STEAMpunk Girls. Key learnings and insights from the pilot will help develop more programs in the future, says Marcus. A focus on teacher development and support, and engaging regional communities will also take place later this year. UTS will also be working with industry partners to co-design the next stages of the project, to support more young women in developing skills and capabilities to prepare them for the future workforce.

Lumkin believes the pilot is a success. “Students working on the projects have gained immensely through the types of activities that UTS has designed for them to understand how to build a research question,” she observes. “It’s more than just surface level. There are so many areas of collecting information to understand the problem: having empathy with the issue and looking at not necessarily the end goal, but the process.”

While STEAMpunk Girls currently involves four schools, the organisers are developing a database of interested teachers, parents and students, who will be notified when more resources and initiatives arise. Marcus urges people to get in touch. “We want to reach young women before they’ve determined what pathways they want to follow and introduce them to an array of fields and opportunities they otherwise wouldn’t be aware of,” she says. “This is part of empowering them to identify existing study and career pathways, whilst also equipping them to forge their own pathways in emerging industries.”

Story and photography by Amos Wong