Stacey King – who teaches mathematics at Mabel Park High in Logan City, Queensland – recently received the $20,000 Choose Maths Award at a ceremony in Melbourne for her ground-breaking work mentoring girls.
With King’s help, her school has overcome an issue other schools around the country are struggling with – attracting more young women to study Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) education.
Increasing female engagement in STEM education has taken on significance in recent years as reports by the Australian Centre for Educational Research (ACER) identify challenges for Australian education with the levels of mathematical literacy, socioeconomic disparities and risk for developmentally vulnerable students.
A survey of 15 year old Australians by the Office of the Chief Scientist found 46% of males plan careers in IT or engineering compared to just 8% of females. King called this statistic “worrying”.
When King became Head of Department of Maths and Science, she developed an interest in the career development of her students, particularly of females into STEM pathways.
“This research was not just interesting – it was something I was dealing with as an educational leader,” she said, adding that in 2013, as her school struggled with enrolments, not one student was studying high-level mathematics.
“I was witnessing the research first-hand, and it was alarming. I knew my team and I had to take action if we were to stop this trend as my school community also faces the barriers of social inequity.”
King has worked hard with her school’s principal, as well as Education Queensland, to attract and retain high quality graduates over the last couple years and invest in teaching professional development.
“Having confident and well-resourced staff is very important. I have also put my passion and energy into practical programs and events to raise the profile the profile of mathematics and STEM over the years,” she said.
“We celebrate any event we can such as awards, Pi Day and also I have relabelled National Science Week as National Maths and Science Week, where we have a week-long celebration.”
Coupled with this, King and her staff have worked hard the last couple of years to re-design high quality curriculum that is rigorous but engaging. Mabel Park High students are now launching rockets, programming robots and reverse engineering toys as part of their mathematical experiences.
“We have placed a value of applied mathematics where students solve problems so that they can make ‘sense’ of why the maths is important and that maths is a tool to solve those problems,” King explained.
She added that the school has placed greater emphasis on communication and collaboration, rather than a quiet, teacher-led classroom.
“Along with this, I have started a Maths Science Academy (MSA) for students who have an interest in STEM. We tailor their learning for them and assessment is delivered differently to other students,” she said.
“MSA students have extra-curricular opportunities and we find ways to engage with STEM career programs. We are in the process of setting up a girls’ mentoring program that involves links with our primary schools as well as businesses and organisations that can support mentoring to careers.”
King said “identifying how best to teach and inspire female students, who learn differently to boys” was key to improving female engagement in STEM education.
“I believe there is work being done across the country that is innovative and creative. I met nine teachers at the recent Choose Maths awards that are examples of that,” she said.
“However, without mindfulness and a targeted approach towards females in STEM – and the way that girls learn more effectively – the journey may be slower for some more than others.”
King added that part of her response to the award is to raise the issue that only a small proportion of Australia’s STEM workforce are female and that is disempowering families and communities and “is not good for a number of reasons” for Australia.
“We are in the process of creating a network for the teachers who attended the awards and that is a way of like-minded colleagues learning from each other, strengthening the work that we are doing in our communities and spreading our experiences with our other colleagues,” she said.