Female mentorship key to helping students achieve their dreams

Alex Nero has always had a passion for maths and science.

Growing up on a farm just outside of Albury, NSW, the third-year Bachelor of Environmental Engineering student originally thought medicine would be her calling, but a trip to the University of Wollongong (UOW) at the end of Year 10 changed the course of her career.

Alex credits UOW’s STEM Camp for Girls (previously called the Women in Engineering Summit), which she attended as a bright-eyed 16-year-old, for giving her the confidence to pursue her passions.

“Being a teenage girl can often be a bit of a rollercoaster in itself, but then add the prospect of entering a male-dominated degree, the stereotypes and likely being one of the few girls in your class who are interested in the field – it can be easy to lose confidence and doubt yourself,” she said.

“The STEM Camp for Girls gave me the confidence to pursue a degree in Engineering at UOW. The camp exposed me to the variety of careers that the STEM field has to offer by meeting and listening to successful women from all sorts of industry sectors. It was a really inspirational and a very worthwhile experience.

“Events like this are so important because they bring together like-minded young women and give them the motivation to get through high school, away from the cliques and out into the world.”

Now in her third year of study, Alex will be taking on the role of program coordinator and mentoring a new group of 15- to 17-year-old girls at next week’s STEM Camp for Girls, held at UOW from Sunday 14 to Wednesday 17 January.

The annual event gives high-achieving teenage girls the opportunity to get involved in hands-on activities that encourage them to collaborate, be creative, and most importantly learn how to think about solving real-world problems – skills that are essential for any STEM professional.

The camp aims to ignite the interest of high achievers in studying a STEM discipline such as Engineering, IT, Physics, Maths and Statistics, with a focus on engagement and mentorship from UOW alumna working in industry and current student role models. Sixty girls will stay on-campus at UOW and participate in a range of activities in university laboratories and workshop facilities and with local industry partners in the Illawarra.

The detailed event program includes a visit to BlueScope Steel, workshops on artificial muscles, coding, and the use of drones in environmental science, a tour of UOW’s Sustainable Buildings Research Centre (SBRC), a trip to a coal services station and other fun activities.

UOW’s newly appointed Dean of Engineering and Information Sciences, Professor Valerie Linton, commended the program for capturing the imaginations of young women interested in STEM.

“When I was a girl growing up in Northern Ireland I also had the chance to attend a similar camp organised by WISE (Women in Science and Engineering),” she said.

“The camp opened my eyes to the fantastic opportunities that a career in science or engineering offers. We need to be working from an early age to get kids excited about STEM subjects and encourage them to think, explore, communicate and collaborate.

“We will be focussing many of our STEM outreach activities toward younger, primary school-aged children in the future to ensure that no girls miss out on exploring STEM disciplines and the future careers that are available to them.”

STEM, otherwise known as Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, currently accounts for 75 per cent of the skills and knowledge needed in the country’s fastest growing occupations, according to a recent study by the Australian Industry Group.

A 2016 report by the Office of the Chief Scientist showed that eliminating stereotypes, emphasising real-life STEM applications, rewarding hard work, and encouraging and supporting progress towards equality are key steps in achieving gender equality in STEM. These steps are fundamental in UOW’s STEM Camp for Girls, and are embedded into the program’s activities and reflected by each of the facilitators.

Alex’s advice to girls who are interested in the field is simple.

“Stick with it, and take that slightly surprised look that people give you when you say you want to study engineering as a compliment,” she said. “It’s hard work, but it’s also rewarding and a lot of fun.”

Words by Emilie Wells.