Bucking the STEM trend: one student's journey to success

Bucking the STEM trend: one student

According to a recent report by Australia’s Chief Scientist, women comprise just 16% of the total STEM workforce.

With young women remaining underrepresented in IT classes and careers, a range of initiatives aimed at boosting female engagement in STEM education, and breaking through gender stereotypes, have sprung up in recent years.

Some of these include Digital Divas, SHE Leads and Engaging Girls in STEM, and have been spurred by a $3.9m Federal Government grant handed down in December, aimed at encouraging women’s participation in STEM education.

There have also been efforts by some female students to inspire their peers to break through the stereotypes that hold many young women back from engaging in these increasingly important subjects.

Brisbane-based university IT student and SAP intern, Imogen Low, is one such role model for young women. Low, who wanted to become a doctor, shared the perception of many other students that ICT was for “geeks and gamers”. However, that all changed in 2014 when her teacher entered her into the Young ICT Explorers (YICTE) competition.

Although she didn’t win, the experience inspired her enough to enter the following year’s competition, which she said was driven by a desire to gain a better understanding of how technology can be used to solve real-world problems.

“Navigation was a big challenge in my school at the time, so I built a 3D interactive platform that would run on any browser to help students and teachers find their way around,” Low told The Educator.

“To build this, I had to teach myself HTML over the summer holidays and enrolled in an online course on computer science from Harvard University,” she explained, adding that the feedback she received on the final solution was overwhelmingly positive.

“The QLD Minister for Innovation, Science and Digital Economy, Leeanne Enoch, mentioned she could see my project being used for the 2018 Gold Coast Commonwealth Games, which was really inspiring.”

Following her win, Low entered the platform into the iAwards, where she won the state and national finals and received a merit at the regional final in Taiwan.

“This competition continued to open my eyes into what our future looks like and where it’s headed. I have since taken up an internship with SAP where I work on various activities,” she said.

“I’ve worked with the innovation team in software development, contributed to predictive analysis and helped give coding classes to under-privileged students through SAP’s partnership with The Smith Family.”

Low said Australia needs to inspire students to see IT as a creative tool which can help build a world where anything is possible.

“We don’t necessarily know what jobs will be like in the future, so having an understanding in the basic applications of technology and how it can be applied is fundamental,” she said.

“To me, these concepts boil down to computational and critical thinking. When we provide students with the basic fundamental skills to code, we help create and solve problems in innovative ways.”

Low said programs like YICTE are crucial to this because it empowers students to believe they are change-makers, introduces them to like-minded people, and provides a platform to develop these skills.

To get more female students involved in ICT, Low said Australia needs to do more to celebrate those women that have been successful in IT and have more teachers encourage young women to get involved.

“Stereotypes are a powerful roadblock currently, so changing the perception of a typical ICT worker will go a long way. The competition smashed that stereotype, introducing me to the entrepreneurial side of ICT and its ability to create change,” she said.

“Programs like YICTE are having a positive impact because they foster creative confidence among students and enable students to develop skills to support a future career in the industry.”