Girls in Tech Expo inspires young girls for futures in STEM

How do you inspire young girls to overcome the barriers to becoming scientists, researchers, engineers, and astronauts? Australian space engineer Sarah Cannard has some experience in that.

“In year 10, I went to my career counsellor at school and said: ‘I want to be an engineer and scientist working in space’. And they had a look at my grades, and they said: ‘Sarah, perhaps you should try something a little easier’,” she told girls at a “Girls in Tech” expo in Adelaide, South Australia.

“And so, my advice to you is find your passion, find your spark. And if you’re motivated, then you can learn the skills and get the grades to do what you want to do. Don’t ever let anyone tell you that you can’t.”

Cannard, now a senior space engineer, gave the keynote speech to begin the day, detailing her journey to becoming the lead systems engineer for Australia’s first lunar rover, Roo-ver, which will go to the Moon with NASA as part of its Artemis program.

Photograph of a blond woman at a podium during a speech
Dr Sarah Cannard during her keynote address at the Girls in Tech Expo. Credit: Imma Perfetto

Garth Coulter, Head of Digital Learning at St Peter’s Girls’ School, told Cosmos the Girls in Tech Expo targets years 5-6 specifically because at that age they’re excited about everything.

“It’s about their mental growth and what they’re able to retain and understand from a scientific perspective, understanding that girls in the [year] 5-6 range are more likely to start picking different pathways and ideas and passions that they wish to follow,” he says.

“Once they start to mature and grow, they start to narrow their focuses into the areas that they’re passionate about. If we can introduce that passion earlier, and give them the opportunity in the scope, then we have the idea that they will start to take on more and more ideas on how problem solving can be a career.”

The Girls in Tech Expo began at St Peter’s Girls’ School in 2018 to broaden girls’ horizons and prepare them for a future filled with exciting career opportunities in technology. Since then, it has grown to involve 7 additional schools, 10 participating technology companies, and 14 workshops over a single action-packed day.

An Innovation Hub included booths and interactive activities run by 10 technology companies. Elizabeth, a year 6 student from St Peter’s Girls’ School, said it was her favourite aspect of the day.

“I like the Innovation Hub because they had lots of different stations. One was like this VR thing where you were in space, and underneath your feet was a black hole,” she says.

Two young girls wearing vr goggles, one with saturn and the  other comets printed on the headpiece.
Students from Burnside Primary School experiencing the solar system through virtual reality. Credit: Imma Perfetto

The station was run by OzGrav – the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Gravitational Wave Discovery – in an initiative to get kids interested in STEM.

“OzGrav is split across instrumentation, data analysis and astrophysics. So, we have these VR headsets where [the students] can see the solar system,” Zach Holmes, a PhD student at OzGrav, told Cosmos.

“We answer their questions, ask them questions, see what they know. Try to inspire them a bit for the years to come. I just think the immersion is so important to their experience and their education.”

At the Adelaide Robotics Academy stand, Director Daniel Manu detailed the after school club in which students learn how to program robots and drones. He sees a huge gap in attendance between girls and boys.

A line of girls stare at something out of frame while holding gaming controllers
Students from Marryatville Primary School participating in an activity in the Innovation Hub. Credit: Imma Perfetto

“I will be happy if I would have 10% [girls] but, unfortunately, it’s even less than that,” he says.

“I can see, with the girls who are brave enough to attend the classes, they sometimes feel pushed away by the boys, the boys have more courage to do things. This is a big gap and, unfortunately, I don’t know how to solve it.”

During a civil engineering workshop run by the Royal Institution of Australia (RiAus), which operates Cosmos, RiAus Education Manager Michelle McLeod and Dr Brendan Scott helped students design and test the layout of water pipes around a town, with the goal to equally distribute sustainable access to fresh water.

A young girl leans over a table covered in a map of a town, with blue and red plastic pipes laid out across it in a grid
A student from St Peter’s Girls designing a system of pipes to transport water. Credit: Imma Perfetto

At a TafeSA (technical and further education) workshop exploring food technology through the process of spherification – turning liquids into squishy, roe-like spheres – Pachita from Magill School enjoyed an eye-opening experience.

“In the morning, we had this bit where we had to construct, like snakes and ladders, and we had to code it so that the robot would make it in a bigger square,” she says, adding that they’ve done coding before, but never to this level.

“Normally it’s the boys who lead this like engineering and stuff. So, it’s important for the girls to extend and like make sure that they also have an equal part in engineering.”

Photograph of three young girls at a table as they stir something in a large metal bowl
Students from Magill School participating in the TafeSA workshop. Credit: Imma Perfetto

The day provides an opportunity for girls to encounter cutting edge technology and emerging career paths.

“I feel like I’m privileged because I had a passion and I followed it and now I’m living my dream essentially working on these projects. But not everyone has that exposure,” Cannard told Cosmos.

“When I was a child, I didn’t know what an engineer was. And when I went through uni there [were] 2 females in our class out of 100 doing mechanical engineering,” she says.

“That’s not changed much, maybe a couple of percent increase, but it’s just such a waste of resources and talent. I know it’s not just boys who dream about wanting to work in space.

“I can be a role model for young girls to say: ‘this is what an engineer looks like’. And so, if they want to be an engineer, particularly a space engineer, they should feel that it is absolutely obtainable.”

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