15 Feb 2023
UniSC's evidence-based Australian school program is helping young girls catch the STEM bug early and to believe in their ability to succeed in science, technology, engineering and maths.
“It is clear that we need a concerted focus to shift mindsets when it comes to STEM," says University of the Sunshine Coast education academic Natalie McMaster.
So she is leading a UniSC program to do exactly that.
The University has received more than $520,000 in funding through the Federal Government’s Higher Education Participation and Partnerships Program (HEPPP) to implement the hands-on, STEM-based learning program, in primary schools across south-east Queensland.
Called MindSET-do, the initiative is based on recent research led by UniSC education academics that confirms that gender-biased expectations for success and ability belief in mathematics are emerging as early as primary school.
The recent case study of more than 100 Year Six students who participated in lessons on electrical circuitry and coding found that both girls and boys had similar STEM skills.
“However, boys develop a stronger sense of belief in their abilities that enable them to be more readily interested in STEM than females in this year level,” Ms McMaster said.
“We know that girls as young as eight are prematurely excluding STEM-related study and work options, due to negative images they have of the field and their own abilities in STEM subject.”
“This influences the choices they make when making STEM-related subject and career choices, contributing to a global shortage of people working in science, engineering, technology and mathematics," she said.
“Developing a positive mindset towards STEM subjects in both boys and girls is an important step towards encouraging their interests and skills in these fields."
Early intervention holds the key
Most initiatives in Australia and internationally aimed at increasing engagement in STEM are implemented in high school, but researchers say that is too late to address the declining number of Australian high-school students enrolling in science subjects.
They say the solution is to engage both male and female students in inquiry-based, hands-on STEM activities in primary school – the key aim of MindSET-do.
“At UniSC we know this approach works because it is backed by our latest research and is based on the success of our previous STEM-based activities in schools,” Ms McMaster said.
Since 2019, UniSC has provided hands-on STEM learning experiences for more than 8,000 students from about 200 schools across regional and south-east Queensland through MindSET-do, formerly known as Make, Integrate, Explore (MIE) Lab.
It has also provided professional development for more than 500 teachers, and trained 40 UniSC students to become presenters, with a focus on raising aspirations of local students in STEM education.
UniSC researchers measured the success of the activities and explored students’ interests, ability beliefs and expectations in STEM school subjects and careers through a case study with more than 100 Year Six students who participated in the MindSET-do program.
“What we found was both encouraging and cause for concern,” said Dr Michael Carey, a Senior Lecturer in Education at UniSC.
“The good news is by engaging in interesting, hands-on STEM activities prior to high school, the students’ confidence, awareness and interest in STEM-related subjects and careers increased significantly,” he said.
"However other findings indicate that females are 24 percent more likely than boys to have lower expectancies for success and belief in their abilities, despite successfully completing the STEM activities.”
It is not only the mindsets of young girls and boys that the new program plans to change.
Ms McMaster many factors including peers, family, teachers, workplaces and community, influence male and female learners when it comes to STEM.
“All have a vital role to play in influencing students’ attitudes and beliefs, and expectations for success towards STEM education, along with other factors such as gender stereotypes and unconscious bias," she said.
“Through MindSET-do we use multi-focused interventions with different stakeholders to achieve systemic change in the pipeline to STEM careers.”
In the search to inspire the next generation of STEM leaders, the researchers have begun a longitudinal study following the experiences of Year Four students from 20 South East Queensland schools.
The study will explore the long-term, positive effects that early, inquiry-based, hands-on experiences with STEM activities and subjects can have on expectancies for success, task values and education and career choices.