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Dressing up tech to switch girls onto STEM

Published:13 July 2018

Attracting young people to STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects is an ongoing challenge for educators and schools across the nation.

The need to do so has never been more critical, with new data revealing that a majority of the jobs of tomorrow will be reliant on STEM skills. In particular, there is an even greater challenge to attract and retain women within this field.

Seeking a solution to this challenge, education researchers from CQUniversity have been working with Bundaberg high schools and teachers to pioneer a science meets fashion approach, which gives young women in the junior years of high school the chance to explore design and technology through the creation of wearable art.

A partnership between CQUniversity and the Bundaberg Regional State High Schools Careers Project enabled two successive Queensland Government Education Horizon Research grants to be applied for and approved, making the pilot project a reality.

This pilot program, known as the Makerspace Project, coordinated through CQUniversity’s Centre for Regional Advancement of Learning, Equity, Access and Participation ( LEAP), aims to engage young women in STEM by allowing them to interact with technology such as 3D printers and software to design wearable pieces of art such as costumes and jewellery. The project enables participants to incorporate software coding into art, fashion and hairstyles – melding technology with creativity and ensuring science is connected to their everyday interests.

By showing that gadgets such as programmable lighting circuits can be incorporated into fashion and art, the research team and students hope the participants will gain a better understanding of the broad scope in which STEM impacts daily life and potentially switch them onto potential careers in STEM.

CQUniversity education academic Dr Wendy Fasso said the students in the initial sessions have completed projects such as illuminated shadow boxes, fashion fabric sample pages, 3D printed fascinators and illuminated bracelets.

"The purpose of delivering this program and researching levels of engagement is to assess how the application of technology when it comes to fashion design can bolster girls’ interest in the STEM subjects.

“There are many girls who have a firm projection into STEM from an early age, and progress to careers in STEM after school. However, we are still seeing a gap when it comes to the participation of women within STEM fields – both within education and in the workplace. That is because there are many girls who do not see STEM as an enterprise in which they belong, often due to conformity pressures," Dr Fasso said.

“Our research as part of this project definitely supports that fact that a lack of interest in STEM is not ability related, but rather more closely associated with personal interests, social values and conforming to peer influence. ‘Certainly, we found that at the beginning of the project many of the girls who participated in the activity were disengaged with STEM and this, they told us, had a lot to do with conforming to social norms –those subjects aren’t recognised as being a ‘cool’ thing for girls to do.

“Fortunately, though, our research is showing that the Makerspace Project allowed the girls to see just what is possible when it comes to STEM.

“The creative links that are forged in the project stimulated interest in STEM and the girls who participated in the project were able to see that STEM is more than just calculators and lab coats, that STEM skills can be applied to a multitude of vocations and interests.

“Our Makerspace girls told us ‘we didn’t think we could but we can’. They were actually frustrated they could not immediately go further with their software coding and programing. They developed an interest and skills in solving problems, and found out that they are good at it.”

Dr Fasso said the key element of the Makerspace Program is to tap into girls’ creative interests, and create space safe away from social pressure, to play and explore links with STEM in the critical ‘tween’ years, between 10 and 14.

“We’ve been working directly with teenagers as part of the project but the research is showing us that there is a need to influence girls at a much younger age before they become concerned with conforming to social norms,” Dr Fasso said.

“We need to provide a non-judgemental bridge period until girls are confident enough to embrace the idea of engaging in science and technology,’ she said. ‘Before seeing science as ‘nerdy stuff’ or ‘boy stuff’ and before they become products of the social norming process, we need to work with girls without interruptions or distractions while they are formulating their self-concept. Our data shows that engagement in the project has enhanced not only the girls’ confidence that they can tackle difficult STEM problems and succeed, but also their sense of value of the types of technologies we have used in their everyday, creative lives.

“We need to reach them and capture their interests before the ages when they are interrogating who they are and before they are bombarded with conflicting messages about stereotypes and gender roles.

“Promoting science to girls in Years 10, 11 and 12 through university school visits is successful for those who are moving in a STEM trajectory, but is really too late for maximum influence. For many, choices about engagement in STEM in middle schooling limits their options in senior school. Research also shows that for this group of girls, single interventions are not always successful, and that longer-term projects are more successful in questioning their interests and decisions.

“I’ve been joining the dots through this research project and its findings, and can see it’s crucial that, during the ages they are formulating their ideas of who they are and what they can achieve, that we influence their study interests and ensure they are able to connect STEM to their interests and everyday lives as girls.”