Lumina Recognises Women in STEM – Q&A with Sally McPhee

News - 08 Sep 2021

Lumina, the new land development in the Gold Coast Health and Knowledge Precinct, is buzzing with new collaborations and partnerships as thought-leaders in the fields of maths, science and technology come together in one location to work towards a brighter future.

The community already includes Griffith University, which has a proud history of supporting sciences through its many tailored programs, as well as Cohort Innovation Space, which has recently launched a Women in Tech initiative.

We spoke to Griffith University’s STEM Outreach Manager and Program Leader Sally McPhee about the importance of initiatives to inspire students to stay in STEM subjects, particularly female students, and the need for increased female representation in the STEM-centric workforce of the future.

Sally manages two community-based STEM engagement programs operating across South East Queensland: Science on the GO! (SoTG) and the Griffith Science Education Alliance, and her tireless efforts to engage the student and teacher communities with the wonders of science were recently recognised with a 2021 Queensland Women in STEM Prize.

Sally, your two community STEM engagement programs have engaged more than 545,000 Queenslanders since their inception in 2005 and 2006. Tell us more about these two great programs.

Sally: The Science on the GO! (SoTG) and the Griffith Science Education Alliance programs work to champion STEM for students at all levels: primary and high school, tertiary and within the wider community.

The main levels that we work with are high school and primary school students. We also work in the tertiary sector to facilitate science communication and event training to university students that are currently studying STEM and education degrees.

In the wider local community, we showcase inspirational STEM leaders and their research through a wide range of public events and programs.

You took over management of these programs 5 years ago. How have the programs evolved to address the changing needs of the local community?

Sally: When I first joined the program, ‘STEM’ was a buzzword. I was still explaining to people that STEM was ‘science, technology, engineering and maths.’ Now, I don’t have to do that anymore, and that is progress in itself.

One of the reasons that the programs were developed was to address the problem where Year 9 and Year 10 students stopped pursuing STEM subjects at the senior level, once they were no longer compulsory. These students were missing out on 21st century STEM skills that are needed to be valuable, engaged members of society in the future. We now run a wide range of regular core events, and we also have capacity to help advise teachers who are ‘on the ground,’ in the classrooms.

More recently,  we launched our Year 12 Academic Bootcamps to help STEM students achieve their full academic potential before their final exams, which in science and maths is 50% of their final mark. .

Is there an ideal age to start talking to girls about STEM studies?

Sally: You are never too young. We have young girls with their parents coming up to us at our ‘Pop Up Science Centres’, which are huge community events that young kids are typically really interested in. We’ve run the ‘Pop Ups’ for four years now and we’ve seen that people of all ages want to converge somewhere to celebrate science together.

We also launched the Suzie the Scientist and Millie the Mathematician Early Reader Books that are the only ones of their kind. Linked to the Australian Curriculum, they have lead female characters that present interesting science and mathematical facts to engage kids, support schools and empower parents to explore and discuss STEM concepts with children while developing and improving their reading literacies and fluency.

What are some challenges you have seen that impact female students’ pursuit of further STEM studies?

Sally: Influencers play a key role in regards to women in STEM, especially parents and teachers. Research shows that young girls often do not possess strong confidence levels around science and maths, and it is important for them to feel like their skills are valued and recognized in this space.

We also know that women and girls in STEM want to be able to make a difference, so it is important to showcase the work that STEM researchers and professionals are doing and how that has an impact. This also gives female students visibility of role models, and different STEM career pathways.

Tell us about your own STEM career journey.

Sally: When I started my Science Degree, I never thought that I would end up on the path that I am on now. I wanted to pursue Marine Biology initially, and then I also obtained Education qualifications, and a Sustainability Masters too. I have been able to utilise my diversity of skills, and not be ‘locked into’ one profession, and this is one of the beauties of STEM – you can take new opportunities as they come. It’s such a diverse field, moving at a fast pace, so if you have 21st century STEM skills, you can definitely pivot on your path, and take advantage of new opportunities.

What benefits do you see from being part of the Lumina community as it grows and other STEM experts and organisations move in?

Sally: We are starting to see a strong demand for more immersive science-based community engagement on the Gold Coast as a whole. We have the University here, and the hospital, and Cohort Innovation Space, as well as the Griffith Innovation Centre, so there is already a great foundation from which to build more of a science showcase for the community.

This type of collaborative work is brilliant for us; for example, the startup space is an exciting way for students to see the real industry application of research. There are also dynamic spaces available where we can showcase things like our annual science competition, and interactive pop-up science hubs.

I’m excited to have access to a big, diverse space where we can hold large-scale community STEM events. Young kids love to experience science in an interactive way, and it is wonderful to be able to offer it locally, instead of having to get in a car or catch a train somewhere like Brisbane.

Visibility and connection for women in STEM

The ability for women in STEM to be visible in a diverse range of roles, and easily build professional networks, is crucial to not only attract experts in their fields like Sally, but to retain them throughout their careers.

With the rapid development of Lumina there will be countless opportunities to continue to cultivate the cross-disciplinary collaboration that’s already happening and support a new generation of female STEM leaders to grow their careers and make a real difference.