In our third Women Choosing Mining Series article, we discuss STEM careers. We learn real examples of how critical thinking, along with fun, practical programmes, can spark interest in a career in STEM for all age groups.
Welcome to our discussion. Would you please introduce yourselves?
Genevieve New – I am a Senior Associate in our Melbourne office. I studied Geological Engineering for my undergraduate degree and have 20 years of practical experience in the fields of geotechnical and civil engineering, specialising in tailings dam design and operation. I am an Engineer of Record for a mine in Australia.
Makaela McGrath – I work in the Brisbane office as an Experienced Environmental Scientist and have been at ATCW for four years. I’ve worked on a range of projects, including rehabilitation/closure for landfill sites, impact assessments, environmental monitoring, landfill gas management options. More recently, I’ve been involved in hydrogeological studies in the mining space.
Ashley Chiam – I have worked in the Brisbane office as an Environmental Engineer for three years with a chemical and environmental engineering background. Initially, I started with the waste team doing waste-related design work, but now I’m also working on mining jobs, assisting in tailings depositions and modelling using MUK 3D software.
Heather Wardlaw – I have been with ATC Williams for more than 25 years. I started my career as a civil engineer then went on to get a Master of Engineering Science. I’m a Senior Associate, an Engineer of Record, and my work focuses on tailings dams and systems.
Can you share your experiences with STEM in schools?
Heather – When my twin daughters were at primary school, I ran a lunchtime engineering program for grades 3 to 6, where we built a rain garden when Victoria was in a drought. We took rainwater from the roof, grew plants to help filter it, and sent the leftover clean water back into the stormwater system. We did simple experiments and initial designs on paper then showed the students how to use spreadsheets and project management skills. Eventually, the children realised they were using maths! It was a practical application for engineering in schools, and Engineers Australia came on board providing scale rulers for the children to use.
At my daughter’s secondary school, we did projects simulating earthquakes and houses sinking into sand. I’ve found that students don’t often hear the word engineering at school, so they don’t understand it and have no practical concept of what engineering involves.
In year nine, my daughters were offered a position on a First Robotics team. They went to their first session knowing nothing but quickly learnt mechanical engineering and programming. They entered the First Robotics Competition, a worldwide competition with six weeks to build a 50 kg robot. The robots compete on a basketball-sized field and are remote-controlled from a laptop. After competing in Sydney, they went to Houston in the United States. That’s how they got their break into engineering and why I believe there need to be more interactive STEM programmes like that to encourage young people.
Genevieve – Last year, I talked about my career at my children’s school, and I took in my box of rocks. I showed them minerals that produce metals such as copper, coal, zinc, and lead and highlighted that they could also work in an industry that extracts minerals. I found it interesting that none of them had linked minerals to the products they use from a mining perspective. Like Heather, I think it’s good to start introducing these ideas to children at a young age. There are so many opportunities to inspire and awaken those ideas.
Makaela – I agree we need more active STEM programs in schools, as I didn’t have that at all. I grew up in regional NSW, and there was nothing practical available beyond reading a textbook. There wasn’t any opportunity to exercise critical thinking.
However, at Uni, I was involved with a ‘Women in STEM’ program where we hosted 30 young female high school students in the lab. We showed them how to use microscopes and preserve samples, and that was the first time that I realised the opportunities available to metropolitan schools compared to regional schools.
What are your experiences of STEM at University?
Ashley – When I was in Uni, there weren’t many girls in our cohort, and the lecturers made sure to have at least one woman in each group. I remember in my first year of Uni, we had to build an excavator as part of a design class. I made sure always to put my hand up so that I actually got to build the excavator in the workshops and not just be the one expected to write up the report.
Makaela – I found that environmental subjects attract more women, which I noticed in my third year at university as I took more engineering subjects as electives. I suddenly realised I was often the only woman in the room. You feel like you stand out when you walk into those classes and that you have a lot of eyes on you when you are the only female STEM student.
Heather – My daughters are now 21. Michelle is studying mechatronics, and Natasha is majoring in mechanical systems (engineering) and performance design (set, sound and costume). They are now on university teams competing in the Rover Challenge, where student teams design, fabricate and test the next generation of Mars Rovers. Together they are also running Melbourne RoboCats, an all-girls First Robotics high school-aged team, the only all-girls team in Melbourne. I believe that the STEM programs I and others did within their schools and the role model I provided through my job put them on the STEM path.
What school or other experiences influenced you to choose a STEM career?
Makaela – In high school, I was lucky to have had a young woman as my year 12 science teacher. It was the first time I saw a young woman working in that field, and I often spoke with her about career options I could pursue in science. I became passionate about environmental science, and the further I got into my degree, the more confident I became that this was where I wanted to go in my career.
Ashley – My mum was a technician for a telecommunication company, and both my parents were very encouraging that I was open-minded with my career. After high school, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, and they suggested engineering.
Genevieve – As a child, I was inspired by a geologist, who was my mum’s friend, and at that time, I started collecting rocks. My mum studied part-time at Monash University later in life. She came to believe that tertiary education was necessary to earn a good income and encouraged me to get a degree. Without those experiences and support, I wouldn’t have studied geology at RMIT University.
Heather – At school, I enjoyed science and geology. I remember being told by teachers and through the media that girls were not good at maths, that statistically, we don’t do as well. I knew even then that it was an illogical argument as there were not enough of us doing the subject. Unlike my girls, I had no career guidance. I chose my career by opening the year 12 university courses handbook and looking through the options. I decided that I would become a geotechnical engineer and design dams because I liked design and geology. I come from a very long line of academics, so it was normal for me to get a degree. As a family, we are on the fourth generation of women at The University of Melbourne.
Any final thoughts about STEM in schools?
Heather – STEM in schools is essential as it opens the opportunity for children to understand their thought processes and logic. I plan to continue to help with running school programmes again one day when I have more time available.
Genevieve – I think it’s vital to make sure that younger people are not already making decisions about what they’re not good at before they get a chance to find out. Using practical applications at different ages have the potential to re-engage and excite children about STEM.
Ashley – ‘The Engineering Profession, A Statistical Overview’ (14th ed) published in 2019 states that women engineers account for roughly 12% of the engineering labour force. I am hopeful that in 20 years, the percentage of female engineers will grow to be higher than the current statistic. I believe more STEM programs are needed in schools to encourage young girls to consider STEM-oriented careers.
Makaela – Increasing STEM opportunities in schools the earlier, the better would be a productive way to begin closing the gender gap in STEM careers and workplaces.
Some brilliant STEM in schools programs were discussed through our Women Choosing Mining series, so we would like to leave you with a list of those we discussed. Maybe you have children who would like to know more about the First Australia robotics program, or you might be keen to be involved.
We give a special thank-you to all the women who took part in this three-part series. If you would like to read the other articles in this series, you will find links below: