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Abstract: Context: The decreasing rate at which Australian high school students are studying advanced mathematics and science compounds the significantly lower rate of female enrolment, and representation in some STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) professional fields (EA 2012)(OCS 2014). It continues the distinctive occupational segregation by gender of the Australian workforce with consequent inequities and under capacity in skills considered necessary for economic transformation. Since the gender advocacy in education interventions of the 1980's, there's been a dramatic rise in female participation and success in secondary and tertiary education and in fields other than STEM. The stand out example of low female enrolments (17%) is in the field of engineering (target 40%) and the evident lack of attraction of these fields for girls has prompted inquiry into the significant influencers of subject choices and courses of study. Further, persistently poor retention of women professionals, particularly in engineering, has seen significant scholarly investigation (Mills et al 2013) and policy response (WGEA 2014). Any credible strategy for significant change needs to be informed by research on decision making by girls and women at both entry into, and exit from, these fields.

Purpose: This study was an opportunity to investigate influencers on Year 8 and 9 girls from 7 metropolitan and regional schools serving low SES communities for choice of subjects and future courses of study, via a purpose-designed program, Collabor8. In four touch point events over eight months, Collabor8 sought to inquire as to what effect a best practice program could have on the perceptions of a junior cohort about studying engineering/IT at university; on their confidence that they could achieve in such studies and courses, and on their familiarity with what engineers and IT professionals do.

Approach: Collabor8 drew on the extensive experience of the WIEIT Program UTS and evidence of what works to engage girls in STEM, such as practical hands-on and applied problem-solving, and demonstrable social benefit. It's theory of change, intended outcomes and evaluation framework were influenced by Zecharia et al 2014 who propose a 'gender lens' is necessary to comprehend the challenge and to assess diverse efforts to increase interest of high school girls in STEM (p.8). They found the influences at play for a young person to choose STEM to be: relevance; perceived ability and 'science capital', prompting the questions: Is it relevant to me?; Do I feel confident? and Can I see the possibilities and pathways? (p.10) Collabor8 conducted a pre- and post- Program survey, and an event survey evaluation at each of four touch points.

Results: Participation in Collabor8 was found to significantly improve the cohorts' perceptions of the relevance of STEM study, confidence in their abilities, and 'science capital'. Notably, 77% of students attending all 4 touch points report being interested or very interested in study of engineering/IT at university in the future, compared with 25.8% reporting they were interested or very interested prior to the program.

Conclusions: The finding that female perceptions of STEM subjects and their prospects in STEM careers can be significantly shifted by an intensive program of experience and interaction with STEM peers and professionals, aligns with Justman and Mendez' study of STEM subject choices by 58,000 high school students (2016): that gendered patterns of specialisation in STEM subjects are likely shaped by 'social norms and perceived economic incentives' (p. 23). There's a strong case for Collabor8 follow-up; for investing in strategies to disrupt gendered stereotyping of courses and careers, and for dismantling features of STEM workplaces and cultures known to deter women's retention, continuity and success.

To cite this article: Holland, Bronwyn; Ronca, Melissa; Raffaele, Catherine and Marcus, Maya. Collabor8 and disrupt: Identifying influencers on STEM subject choices [online]. In: 27th Annual Conference of the Australasian Association for Engineering Education : AAEE 2016. Lismore, NSW: Southern Cross University, 2016: 349-356. Availability: <http://search.informit.com.au/documentSummary;dn=683511728890147;res=IELENG> ISBN: 9780994152039. [cited 26 Jul 17].

Personal Author: Holland, Bronwyn; Ronca, Melissa; Raffaele, Catherine; Marcus, Maya; Source: In: 27th Annual Conference of the Australasian Association for Engineering Education : AAEE 2016. Lismore, NSW: Southern Cross University, 2016: 349-356. DOI: Document Type: Conference Paper ISBN: 9780994152039 Subject: High school students--Education; Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics Education Society; Education Australia; School enrollment; Women engineering students; Peer Reviewed: Yes Affiliation: (1) University of Technology Sydney, email: bronwyn.holland@uts.edu.au
(2) OPM Group London
(3) University of Technology Sydney
(4) University of Technology Sydney

Database: Engineering Collection