UWA challenges STEM stereotypes in the Pilbara

30 Aug 2021 | 3 mins

Four female engineering students from The University of Western Australia swapped lecture halls and university life for the red dirt of the Pilbara in WA’s north recently to encourage local high school students into careers involving science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

Students Kate Kelly, Sie-Anne Waisime, Narmeen Kashif and Stephanie Cabrera Saldana were selected to represent UWA at Tom Price and Newman Senior High Schools, as part of the University’s student equity programs Aspire UWA and Girls in Engineering.

Aspire UWA has engaged with local high schools in the Pilbara since 2009 to address barriers to tertiary study and in 2021 joined with Girls in Engineering to directly address gender diversity within STEM fields. 

Across the week, school students participated in a range of activities which included learning about the different types of engineering and Q&A sessions with the UWA ambassadors, where they asked about the opportunities available at university and what’s involved in tertiary study.

Tom Price students engaged with STEM activities

Kate Kelly, due to complete her Master of Professional Engineering studies next year in Mechanical Engineering, outlined the support available to students, particularly in maths – often cited by those in high school as a barrier to considering STEM pathways.  

“By explaining the support mechanisms and groups that exist at university, as well as the early level maths units, students can see that finding maths hard isn’t a barrier to studying STEM,” Ms Kelly said.

The school students also spent time studying engineering skills of team-work and optimisation as they engineered their own island civilisation ensuring that the basic needs of food, water, housing and electricity were met.

Newman Senior High School students

And they learnt how nature can could be an inspiration for STEM professionals to help solve complex problems in a sustainable way, a practice known as biomimicry. 

First year engineering student Sie-Anne Waisime said she’s passionate about changing perceptions girls had about engineering and wanted to help get them excited about what could be a challenging yet rewarding career. 

“We as women face our own set of challenges and misconceptions that we need to break down,” Ms Waisime said.  

“With only 16 percent of Australia’s STEM-skilled workforce being female, this stereotype has been reinforced, which is why role models for these regional visits are integral to successfully breaking down common barriers and misconceptions about STEM pathways.”

While in Tom Price, the UWA ambassadors had the opportunity to experience working life in the Pilbara, visiting the Marandoo mine site in a work placement experience organised by Rio Tinto. 

About Aspire UWA:  

Aspire UWA works with more than 70 partner schools and communities in regional Western Australia and Perth to encourage students who wouldn’t normally consider tertiary education to see the benefits and opportunities that university study offers. 

About Girls in Engineering UWA: 

The UWA Girls in Engineering outreach program inspires female students to take advantage of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) study and the career pathways available in this area. Along with foundational partner Rio Tinto, Girls in Engineering recognises the need to address gender imbalance in STEM fields at an early age. Since it’s starting the program in 2013, UWA’s female engineering intake has increased from 16 per cent to 25 per cent.

You can learn more about the Aspire UWA program here, and the UWA Girls in Engineering program here.  

Media references

Liz McGrath, UWA Media Advisor, 08 6488 6876

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