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In Conversation with Professor Lisa Harvey-Smith: Gender Equality in Early STEM

In our recent STEM Hour, Little Scientists was fortunate enough to speak to to the Australian Government’s Women in STEM Ambassador Professor Lisa Harvey-Smith to explore the importance of early STEM education and how educators can contribute to overcoming gender bias in STEM. This is because research shows that by the age of six, girls have started to de-identify with STEM and implicit gender biases have started negatively impacting their participation and enthusiasm for STEM learning.

Professor Lisa Harvey-Smith is a passionate advocate for the importance of early STEM learning and advises the Australian Government on how to increase the participation of women and girls in STEM education. She is a Ph.D. astrophysicist with 20 years of experience, a former presenter on ABC Television’s Stargazing Live series, and author of bestselling children’s book: Under the Stars: Astrophysics for Bedtime.

Read on to explore ideas on how to overcome gender bias in early STEM education from our STEM Hour Q&A with Professor Lisa Harvey-Smith.

Professor Lisa Harvey-Smith reflects that “the role of the educator is beyond asking questions and guiding. It’s making sure the environment is safe, culturally safe, and equitable for all students depending on learning styles.” She highlighted three core strategies for educators to make learning spaces inclusive and empowering for all children.

🔵 Providing immersive real world experiences: Go into nature, observe, and encourage children to ask questions about the world around them. Rich STEM learning doesn’t require robots, drones, or other STEM technologies. You can ground the teaching and learning in real-life experiences based on what children see, feel, and talk about with their parents on a daily basis.

Gender Bias in Early STEM Education | Professor Lisa Harvey-Smith Q&A | Little Scientists Australia

🔵 Go beyond observational learning: Encourage children to brainstorm, collaborate, listen, plan, and communicate their thoughts. For example, they can conduct experiments and build hypotheses to explore questions such as “Why are some leaves green, while others are orange?”.

🔵 Don’t feel like you need to separate STEM into specific subjects: Explore other learning areas such as the arts and integrate STEM into them by introducing age-appropriate STEM concepts and language. For example, investigate rhythm and patterns in music to introduce mathematical concepts to children in a fun way.

Professor Lisa Harvey-Smith emphasises that educators can play a role in breaking down implicit biases with internal critical reflection — and also the help of the broader community. She says that “there are so many scientists, engineers, STEM professionals who are willing to go into educational settings”, allowing children to ask questions and get excited about learning STEM.

She provides a few simple yet effective tips on how to avoid stereotypes in early STEM learning:

🟠 Introduce children to a wide range of STEM areas and career paths so that they can see a space for themselves, no matter their interests. For example, instead of just talking about being an engineer broadly, introduce children to different types of engineers and what they do, such as mechanical engineers, aerospace engineers, and chemical engineers. Visit Engineers Australia’s website to explore the many types of engineers that exist.

🟠 Audit what you make available to children to ensure you’re avoiding stereotypes. Consider classroom decorations, examples you provide, videos you show children, and types of excursions you offer. For example, could you show more videos of fun science experiments conducted by women and girls? Professor Lisa Harvey-Smith says that you can “show children that stereotypes aren’t everything and show alternatives. Then children can really get a sense that they can be anything.”

Gender Bias in Early STEM Education | Professor Lisa Harvey-Smith Q&A | Little Scientists Australia

🟠 Show children the diversity of STEM professionals using images of people of all backgrounds, genders, and ages working in STEM.

🟠 Invite STEM professionals into your service to speak about their work. They can be within your local community or children’s family members. You can use databases such as STEM Women or Skype A Scientist to connect with STEM professionals.

🟠 Talk about STEM in non-STEM focused roles. Every career involves some aspect of STEM. Make this visible to children. Invite people from the community to talk about their non-STEM focused roles and how they use STEM in their work.

Professor Lisa Harvey-Smith shares that STEM education is not about trying to force children into a STEM career. Instead, she says that “you’re trying to get them ready for the modern world so that they have the best chances to have the most choices that they want in their lives. So they can make choices about where they want to go, where they want to take their fantastic skills…”

But learning and working in STEM doesn’t necessarily mean being a scientist or wearing a lab coat, or going in a rocket or digging up dinosaur bones.

Professor Lisa Harvey-Smith says that “children love that stuff, but [their STEM exploration] might end up being something completely different, like being a graphic visual artist or being a musician who uses huge amount of tech and AI and goodness knows what else! All of those skills will be very useful for children of today.”

To explore more of Professor Lisa Harvey-Smith’s discussion on gender equality in early STEM education, you can buy a recording of the STEM Hour here.

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