National program makes headway in closing STEM gender gap
Schoolgirls mentored by women scientists more likely to study science and mathematics in years 11 and 12.
Fifty-four schoolgirls from 25 regional towns and every capital city across Australia will head to the
University of New South Wales (UNSW) in Sydney on 12 December for the Curious Minds learning
and mentoring program for girls in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM).
This is the second year this federal government-funded program is helping Year 8 and 9
schoolgirls from diverse backgrounds across Australia to gain confidence and skills in STEM. The
majority of schoolgirls who participated in the first Curious Minds program in 2015 reported
increased belief in their ability to perform in STEM subjects. They also said they were more likely
to study science and mathematics in years 11 and 12 and at university after completing the
Most participants (93%) said they would recommend the Curious Minds experience because it
helped them discover a passion for STEM subjects, and expanded their knowledge about different
careers in science and information technology.
The Curious Minds program exposes participants to outstanding female role models working in a
variety of STEM fields. Each schoolgirl is matched with a mentor drawn from a pool of more than
120 women working in science, industry and engineering fields.
The students will spend five days at the University of New South Wales in the first of two intensive
modules of learning across physics, informatics, chemistry, biology, mathematics and Earth and
environmental science. The schoolgirls will also meet their mentors with whom they will work over
a six-month period.
The Curious Minds program is helping to increase girls’ participation in STEM subjects and aims to
counter declining Year 12 enrolments in traditional sciences (biology, chemistry and physics) and
The 54 participants come from more than 50 schools in every state and territory in Australia. They
have been selected based on their performance in three national high school-based science,
informatics and mathematics competitions. Preference has been given to girls from regional, rural,
disadvantaged and Indigenous areas and backgrounds.
“Some of these highly capable girls have never had an opportunity to take part in this kind of
extension learning, but now federal government funding has opened up this opportunity for them to
get inspired about a future in science beyond traditional paths,” says Dr Kelsie Dadd, Program
Director, Curious Minds.
The program will put students in touch with inspiring Australian women in science, including:
celebrated ‘green steel’ inventor Professor Veena Sahajwalla from UNSW’s Centre for Sustainable
Materials Research and Technology, International Ocean Discovery Program expedition scientist
Dr Kelsie Dadd, award-winning ecologist Professor Angela Moles from UNSW’s Big Ecology Lab,
Indigenous CSIRO scientist and self-described ‘science clown’ Karlie Noon, physicist and energy
modeller Dr Jenny Riesz, and mentors from varied STEM fields, including geology, agriculture,
quantum physics, medicine, academia, engineering, information technology and research.
“This program is all about helping to remove the barriers that are hindering our young women from
excelling in science and maths at school, and gaining exposure to the varied and exciting futures
that STEM fields offer,” says Dr Cathy Foley, Patron, Curious Minds.
Curious Minds is funded by the Australian Government Department of Education and Training
through the Restoring the Focus on STEM programme, and is supported by UNSW and
Microsoft. The Australian Mathematics Trust and Australian Science Innovations jointly administer
Curious Minds. These organisations also reach thousands of talented students and involve
hundreds of teachers and schools in the Science and Mathematics Olympiad programs.
KEY STEM FACTS:
• Although the total number of Year 12 enrolments in Australia increased by 16% from 1992
to 2010, enrolments in traditional science (biology, chemistry and physics) and advanced
mathematics have declined by 5-10%. The declines are 10% for biology, 5% for chemistry,
and 7% for both physics and advanced mathematics.1
• Australia’s performance in Year 8 mathematics and science has stagnated over the past 20
years, while many other countries have shown improvements over the same period,
according to the latest Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS
• Girls can be deterred from STEM careers because of: a lack of female role models to
exemplify the suitability of STEM for girls; a mismatch between perceived abilities and
confidence that results in reduced female representation in STEM; and pervasive cultural
beliefs that STEM is a male domain.3
• Australian students’ performance in scientific literacy has declined significantly since 2006
by the equivalent of half a school year (PISA 2015).4
• STEM skilled jobs are growing at 1.5 times faster than any other job sector (Australian
Bureau of Statistics).
1. “The continuing decline of science and mathematics in Australian high schools”, Kennedy, Lyons and
Quinn, Vol. 60, No. 2, 2014
2. “TIMSS 2015: A first look at Australia’s results”, Thomson, Wernert, O’Grady and Rodrigues, Australian
Council for Educational Research.
3. “Busting Myths About Women in STEM”, Prinsley, Beavis and Clifford-Hordacre, Office of the Chief
Scientist Occasional Paper Series, Issue 13, November 2016.
4. PISA 2015: A first look at Australia’s results. Thompson, De Bortoli and Underwood, Australian Council for
Education Research, 2016.
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