After being named 2018 Australian of the Year, quantum physicist Michelle Yvonne Simmons gave an inspiring speech about being a woman in a male-dominated industry. “Throughout my career, I found people often underestimate female scientists,” she said.
As an advocate for young girls who want to pursue a career in science and technology, she encouraged everyone to “not be defined by other people’s expectations of who you are and what you might be”.
Research shows that gender stereotypes start at a young age. From as early as four, kids start to identify certain jobs as belonging to either a girl or a boy. As a result, girls disengage from ‘male’ subjects at school like maths and science, making them unlikely to pursue careers in the male-dominated science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) fields.
Despite my most ardent efforts, I can see these gender stereotypes impacting my own kids. At three and five, my boys are already starting to identify colours, toys and jobs as belonging to either a boy or a girl. They say things like, “Mum, you have to like pink because you’re a girl” and “Does Dad work with numbers because he’s a boy?” As a passionate feminist, I certainly feel like I’m up against a mammoth force of societal preconceptions when it comes to gender roles and expectations.
That’s why I was so elated to hear about an exhibition at Scienceworks in Melbourne that focusses on tackling preconceived ideas about gender roles by sparking girls’ interest in STEM fields. The exhibition is called Ground Up: Building Big Ideas, Together and aims to ignite a lifelong passion for STEM by immersing babies and young children in sensory discovery and construction play.
Through activities like stacking blocks, setting balls in motion, completing three-dimensional puzzles and engineering car wash brushes into action, children learn to build, design, hypothesise and experiment – skills that will stand them in great stead for a career in STEM fields like aeronautical engineering, computer programming or biochemistry. The exhibition builds on the work of the Pauline Gandel Children’s Gallery at Melbourne Museum but has a strong focus on developing problem-solving skills, making it a unique experience well worth the trip to Spotswood.
I’m always interested in how these exhibitions come to life and was thrilled to discover that Museums Victoria managed to design an exhibition that appeals to young girls without venturing into the predictable ‘pink and cutesy’ territory.
The creators drew inspiration from two projects that focussed on increasing girls’ engagement in STEM exhibits – TWIST (Towards Women in Science and Technology) from the United Kingdom, and EDGE (Exhibit Designs for Girls’ Engagement) by the Exploratorium in the United States.
Inspired by the projects’ learnings, Museums Victoria developed an exhibition design checklist that included questions like, “Are the colours gender neutral?”, “Is it collaborative?” and “Are the experiences designed for the heights and strengths of girls and boys?”
Another big focus was ensuring the exhibition featured a strong female role model. That’s how Dot came to life. Inspired by Australian earth scientist, Dr Dorothy Hill who was the first female fellow of the Australian Academy of Science, Dot is a virtual character that links all the experiences in the exhibition adding a good dose of humour and cheekiness along the way. When developing her character, Museums Victoria avoided overtly female features like eyelashes, lipstick and bows in her hair. They also chose to make Dot purple – a colour often associated with creativity and ambition.
Ensuring parents/carers are always close at hand was another important aspect in the exhibition design. While the aim is to build children’s confidence, it’s also important that they feel secure and supported while navigating the exhibition and that parents are inspired to continue their STEM-based learning at home.
I’ve been visiting Scienceworks since my kids were babies and can’t wait to head to Ground Up with my mum friends, most of whom have young girls. The world certainly needs more organisations like Museums Victoria to stop kids from ruling out careers based on gender.
As Professor Simmons so expertly put it, “when a person starts to believe in what others think of them, that can become a self-fulfilling prophecy”. Let’s remind our daughters, nieces and friends that they can be anything they want, including an award-winning scientist.
Ground Up: Building Big Ideas, Together is currently on at Scienceworks, 2 Booker Street, Spotswood, open from 10am to 4.30pm daily.
How do you show your child they can be anything they want? Share with us below.
This content was created with thanks to our brand partner Museums Victoria.
Scienceworks is bursting with things to challenge curious minds of all ages. In just one visit, you can stroll among the gigantic machines that kept the city running, enjoy electrifying theatre in the Lightning Room, let your little ones roam safely in enclosed spaces, wander through our immersive exhibitions and drop into deep space in the Melbourne Planetarium.