“A small glowing happiness on the inside’ is how Jenny Mackay describes her feelings having spent some time volunteering with EWB School Outreach. Jenny, a chemical engineer at Origin Energy put her hand up to volunteer with EWB school outreach after she saw a request circulated by Origin Foundation.
“I got involved to give young people some exposure to careers that may not be part of their day to day lives. For example, they might regularly meet people working in teaching, nursing, or retail, but probably they don’t often meet people working as engineers. I also especially want to break down stereotypes for boys and girls about what an engineer looks like and what they do.”
The EWB school outreach programme promotes Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics (STEM) subjects to school children through fun active workshops that introduce kids to real world humanitarian challenges, such as clean water access, and helps them use scientific principles to solve the problem. Focused on schools in rural, regional and remote Australia, the program is led by professional skilled volunteers like Jenny. And with 66% of volunteers being female, EWB are very proud of the opportunity the program provides to showcase positive female role models working in STEM careers.
“We want to change the perception that STEM careers are only for boys good at maths, and that everyone working in STEM is ‘male, pale and stale’, says Emilie Nachtigalle who runs School Outreach. Indeed research has shown that children as young as three years learn stereotyped associations around gender and job roles (Hilliard & Liben 2010), and that six to nine year old girls hold implicit beliefs that maths and science are for boys, and that they are not as good at maths as boys. (Stefens, Jelenec & Noack 2010). “We want school kids to know that STEM is for anyone who likes problem solving and helping people. Moreover that working in STEM can be a source of empowerment; a means to build solutions for a world facing increasing global challenges.”
According to Emilie, there is growing demand from teachers in Australia for real-world based STEM content to use in their classrooms. The unique aspect of the EWB school outreach program is that it is the only STEM program in Australia that focuses exclusively on ‘Humanitarian STEM’; using technical skills to solve challenges ranging from access to appropriate sanitation to clean energy. Solutions that help alleviate poverty and create a better world for everybody.
“This program has a double impact because school students see a different side of STEM, have a fun hands-on experience, and meet enthusiastic people who act as near to peer role models.” says Emilie. “Meanwhile volunteers connect with their communities and like-minded peers, develop their social conscience, and feel like they are giving back to the next generation.”
With its broad membership and volunteer base, EWB Australia has been able to bring these STEM workshops to rural, remote and regional schools that would otherwise not be able to access these resources.
In 2016, EWB piloted a new type of school outreach – incorporating traditional knowledge into workshops in an appropriate way. This involved working in close partnership with a community in and around the Shepparton area of Victoria; including the Yorta Yorta Nation, the Koorie Education Support Officers in the region. This initiative resulted in new modules that are closely aligned to significant places, and traditional knowledge from the Yorta Yorta culture. Forty volunteers especially trained in cultural awareness and best practices in Aboriginal education, delivered these workshops to over 30 schools in the region.
“This initiative is an important step toward reconciliation.” says Emilie. “It helps to create space in the STEM ecosystem for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youth by valuing their traditional knowledge, supports the development of a culturally competent profession, and deepens non-Aboriginal Australia’s respect for the ancient wisdom that can support the work of STEM professionals.”
For Jenny the volunteering opportunity facilitated by her employer, has paid off in many ways. “I really enjoyed seeing the confidence of the school kids working together to tackle these problems in creative and agile ways, whilst having lots of fun with each other. It can spark an idea, a change in outlook, or reshape the direction of someone’s life – even if you never know it. Volunteering reminds me of all the positive influences this profession has across the globe, and of the small part that I can play in that story.”
The Origin Foundation supports EWB Australia through funding, and with GiveTime volunteering opportunities for Origin Energy staff.