Australia’s largest science agency, CSIRO, has launched a wonderful initiative to engage Indigenous communities in STEM fields. The inaugural Indigenous STEM Awards winners will be announced in early December, and will include entries from students and scientists in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.
The awards will also recognize the integral role schools, teachers and mentors have in supporting Indigenous students pursuing STEM educations and careers. There are 7 awards in total which fall into 3 categories: The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Student STEM Achievement, School, Teacher & STEM Champion, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander STEM Professional.
These awards are a direct development from CSIRO’s Indigenous STEM Education program, and the award recipients this year will only be from this program. From next year on, however, they will open up the entry to to students, schools, and community members who are working to help Indigenous students have access to STEM education, as well as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander STEM professionals nationwide.
The aim of creating the awards was to encourage greater participation in the STEM fields among indigenous communities.
“Our overarching goal is to improve participation and representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people(s) in STEM fields by providing supported access to culturally relevant STEM practices,” said Therese Postma, project director of Indigenous STEM Education and Outreach at CSIRO.
“By recognizing and profiling an outstanding STEM professional, we are providing an Indigenous STEM role model that will inspire younger Australians, and make them believe that this is something that is doable for them too,” she continued.
CSIRO’s Indigenous STEM program began in 2014 with $28.8 million AUD in funding from BHP Billiton, a mining company.
Data from the Australian Department of Education in 2013 show the participation rate of Indigenous students in STEM subjects is much lower than that of non-Indigenous students.
“While the Government’s agenda for increasing school attendance for Indigenous school students is an important part of improving outcomes, there is more work to be done on improving what happens inside the schools to ensure better performance in STEM for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander school students. Teachers need to be better prepared for teaching maths and science to Indigenous school students, and more Indigenous teachers are essential,” the study recommended.
The Indigenous share of enrollments in STEM subjects, the natural and physical sciences, IT and engineering, is below 1%. But because of an increased awareness about this major gap and the implementation of various initiatives, between 2003 and 2013 there was a 146% increase in Indigenous bachelor and postgraduate STEM course enrollments, from 473 to 1,163.
The majority of Indigenous student prefer to study society and culture, and health, and education. The government has found a blueprint that has worked in the medical field, where the number of Indigenous professionals have increased. By 1995, there had only been 15 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander medical graduates. In 2011, 11 Indigenous medical students graduated, and 80 Indigenous students commenced in medical degrees.
By incorporating specific Indigenous health content into core curriculum in medical education, and having this accredited by the Australian Medical Council, they started to see gains. Which is why the CSIRO Indigenous education program could be the game-changer for the number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students as well as professionals in the STEM fields.
Data is one aspect, but having visible role models is also a powerful method of encouraging others to recognize this is an area they too belong in. The CSIRO blog recently featured a STEM professional by the name of Karlie Noon. She is a 26-year-old Kamilaroi woman who was born and raised in Tamworth, NSW.
She speaks Kamilaroi and Waradjuri and is helping CSIRO find candidates for their inaugural Indigenous STEM awards. Karlie, an astronomer, always loved learning about the solar system and even has a tattoo of it on one of her arms.
No one in her family finished school or attended university, but her own career trajectory which began studying math at the University of Newcastle has made her a role model to those around her.
“My sister who left school in year 9 has started a nursing degree. My cousin in year 10 has told me she wants to go to uni and do science, and that science is her favorite subject,” she told SBS news.
Karlie has been working with esteemed astronomer Dr Duane Hamacher who she first met while participating in the BHP Billiton Foundation-funded ASSETS (Aboriginal Summer School for Excellence in Technology and Science) Program. The two now work alongside one another, and Karlie wants to encourage more Indigenous boys and girls to get excited about STEM.
“I want to get the word out that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students are natural scientists – and that doesn’t mean we are good at studying nature, it means we are good at investigating. There is so much we can do and we are so unique in our approach and that is incredibly valuable in science and STEM,” she said.
She also cites the Indigenous cultural background as a perfect example for why Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander kids would make great candidates for STEM programs.
“Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people(s) have been investigating and gathering knowledge for millennia; highlighting and rewarding our continued achievement in this field is important for continuing our legacy as investigators,” she said.
CSIRO engages local Indigenous students with ecological programs that incorporate aspects of Indigenous life that is already familiar to many of them. Bush trips with community elders, traditional uses for plants, and monitoring land and sea life have become popular aspects of the program, especially among kids.
Closer to home in the US, we’ve seen how another woman is working to close the Indigenous STEM gap that exists. Mechanical Engineer Suzanne Singer, who works with the US Department of Agriculture, wants to encourage more native American women to enter STEM fields because many of the issues that are prevalent in their Indigenous communities are STEM issues.
We are big proponents of closing the STEM gender gap, but it has to be done in an intersectional manner. The way to target younger girls is by recognizing how different communities and cultures can be drawn to science, technology, engineering and math through their own lived experiences.
Chicago mom Jackie Lomax created a program for her daughter and other girls in order to ensure black communities and low-income families are not excluded in the growing movement to incorporate more girls into industries where the need for personnel is fast out-growing the number of people who are currently qualified.
We can’t wait to see how the Australian Indigenous STEM Awards will make a difference in the life of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, as well as the impact they will have in STEM industries nationwide.