Girls light up over STEM

Exclusive time with technology sparks interest

Cameron Malcher
Kerri Carr

Girls are making a significant contribution to a major STEM project at their school — a light and sound event inspired by the Vivid festival — after special programming allowed their interests to grow.

“Talking to the girls at the moment about Vivid, I find they’re really interested in making lanterns, thinking about scientific reactions like how tonic water glows in the dark when it’s hit with UV light, experimenting with performance and exhibition, making their own glow-in-the-dark paints and really looking into other scientific effects that are being created with light and colour, so there’s lots of buzz with our girls preparing for our ‘Inspired by Vivid’ event and around making with technology in general,” says teacher-librarian Sonya “Sunny” South who runs a girls’ technology group at Sydney Secondary College (Leichhardt campus).

“This really appeals to the girls; the boys are interested in the technical and the girls are really interested in the hands-on and how that can connect with technology”.

“The girls are starting to work on projects now, to create a light walk across the school and up to our library, and then in one of our library spaces we’re going to have some installations created by the kids — and this will be both the boys and the girls — using the technology we have at the school to create a light and a sound theme,” Ms South said.

Girls’ participation in preparation for the light and sound event, to be held next term, show how far the school has come in increasing girls’ interest in technology.

Ms South said that when she started a technology group at the school a year ago, girls were far out-numbered by the boys: the boys took over the activities and the girls quickly disengaged.

Keen to make sure make sure the girls could engage with technology in a nurturing environment, the school began offering workshops created just for them called GirlsMake, a full-day event each term for girls to play and learn with technology. Girls in years 7 and 8 were targeted and there’s been a great take-up.

“We consistently host around 30 girls each time we run a GirlsMake, and that’s around 10 per cent of our girls in the school, so that’s a significant number,” Ms South said.

After an introduction and motivational video (there are lots out there online: search “Made with Code”) there is an all-in activity. “All the girls sit around a big table and create something like ‘binary necklaces’, where they’ll work out their name in binary code and make a bead necklace, or we’ll do an LED activity by making a piece of jewellery — something very simple but something everybody is involved in. We try to make sure the girls get to know each other. That’s really important because some girls come by themselves. We want everyone to feel comfortable being there,” Ms South said.

“Throughout a GirlsMake day students are offered a range of workshops using low and high technologies. We offer entry-level activities using easy equipment and ‘level-up activities’ that challenge students who are quite skilled or have attended previously.

“During our last GirlsMake we had the library space turned into a huge Rube Goldberg machine with girls working in groups to create complex machines from found items in a finite length of time.”

“When we can, we invite women from industry to come and talk to the girls. It really makes a difference for girls to see great role models in STEM careers,” Ms South also said.

A GirlsMake day usually ends with a chat about what skills have been acquired and perhaps a giveaway. “I buy the Careers With Code magazines or look for great give-aways for the girls to take away and think a little bit more about technology and their future,” she said.

The GirlsMake days have been so popular that Ms South now also runs a weekly program called Girls’ Squad. “One break-time a week, the girls have the full run of the library space, and all the technology is out for them to tinker with, play with and teach other girls,” Ms South said.

“We have low-tech stuff going on at that time too. We’ve got some girls involved in knitting, sewing and huge-scale colouring-in projects which is a lovely way for the girls to collaborate. It’s just a time for girls to get together without the boys around, to explore different high and low-technology activities.

“The library is kind of a boys’ zone most of the week, so it’s nice to give a little bit of time over to the girls.”

Ms South said the school’s goal is to have more girls electing to study technology and STEM subjects in years 9 and 10.

The girls who joined the GirlsMake group last year will be choosing their electives at the end of this year. “So the proof in the pudding will be how many of those girls will take on the STEM-style subjects. We’re encouraging them to do that. We expect our efforts with GirlsMake and the Girls’ Squad will have had an effect,” Ms South said.

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