An RMIT outreach program is flying female students, alumni and staff across regional and rural areas to inspire high school girls about pathways into science, technology, engineering and maths.
The STEM outreach program has so far visited high schools in Mallacoota, Horsham, Ouyen and Mildura, giving female students access to first-hand accounts of what it’s like to work and study in these traditionally male-dominated fields.
Women in Australia are still falling short when it comes to representation and earning capacity in the fields of science, technology, engineering and maths. The lack of female role models in these industries has been touted as one of the many contributors to under-representation, and this program aims to rectify that.
On a recent trip to Horsham, first-year Associate Degree in Aviation student Jacinta Burgess not only spoke with high-schoolers, she was also behind the controls of the Cessna four-seater aircraft transporting the RMIT team.
Burgess flew from RMIT’s flight school at Point Cook, over the Grampian Ranges to the agricultural Wimmera region. Among her cargo was third-year student Kerry Phillips, who is studying a double degree in Business and Aviation.
“At the moment there’s a lack of women, and industry is really looking to recruit women to the field. It’s not only a man’s world, women can come in, too,” said Burgess.
Kerry Phillips spoke to students about her role as one of three women in the Airbus Fly Your Ideas competition. She also did an internship with Korean Air, where she was one of only three females in her department.
“I think it’s so important to be targeting females from the ground up, so going to high schools and things like that and letting them know what it is like. I think getting more females within these roles is empowering industry as well as it will help them grow,” said Phillips.
Phillips told students that they don’t necessarily need to know what they want to do straight away. Having begun a physiotherapy degree in Perth before moving to Melbourne to study Aviation and Business at RMIT, she didn’t follow a traditional path into the degree she loves.
She told students, “Don’t be too stressed out about choosing what you want to do now and that’s what you do for the rest of your life - it really won’t be.
“I love what I’m doing now. The difference is dramatic. Going to university, I get excited and I feel like I’m more a part of it. I’m doing all the volunteer opportunities I could possibly imagine and I’m getting better grades.
“Much, much, much better grades, because I love what I’m doing.
“There’s not a lot of representation for females in this industry, especially in the business side of science. What they are trying to look for is a lot more females to go into those kind of roles, looking at the business side of engineering and science.”
Horsham is an agricultural town and many of its largest employers focus on agricultural science. PhD student Tahnee Manning’s research into potato enzymes is relevant to the STEM career paths students could take without having to leave their region.
Tahnee explained that bio-technology covers everything, from beer-making through to genetic engineering, which is relevant to Wimmera as it grows barley for beer and is benefiting from genetic advancements in pulse crops such as lentils. She spoke to the practical side of science, demonstrating how you can apply science to real-world problems.
“I grew up in a small country town on the north-west coast of Tasmania. When I was young, science wasn’t on my radar at all. It was not a consideration. What’s a scientist? I used to think was an old white man in a white coat and glasses,” Manning told the girls.
“I just wanted to study something to help farmers, and now here I am.”
RMIT’s pilot training leader, Mike Heffey, said the RMIT STEM outreach teams would continue to be supported by the RMIT Flight School.
“We’ve got the mobility, the brilliance of staff and students and the enthusiasm to get out and about to promote science, technology, engineering, mathematics and aviation as brilliant career pathways for all students, especially girls,” Heffey said.
“Involving RMIT students and alumni is great role modelling for the importance of STEM in education."
This RMIT STEM outreach activity aligns well with the Women in Aviation International (WAI) Australian Chapter outreach program. Sci-Fly STEM is the airborne education program of WAI Australia, pioneered by Zara Dennis, with the aim of promoting STEM to children and young adults who, due to their rural location in Australia, would otherwise be unlikely to have such opportunities.
Burgess was accompanied by pilot Jack Hay, Grade Two Flight Instructor and CPL Co-ordinator at RMIT Flight Training.
Story, video and photos: Sarah Adams