04/08/2021 - 10:06

Closing the STEM gap – girls combine their passion for Maths and Science in ground-breaking medical research program

04/08/2021 - 10:06


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Gender gaps are particularly high in some of the fastest-growing study and career areas - like biological science, computer science and engineering. While research compiled by the Alliance of Girls’ Schools Australasia (AGSA) confirms that women are still under-represented in many of the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) fields, significantly high numbers of Penrhos College students are bucking the trend by choosing to study and work in these ‘gender atypical’ areas.

To secure Australia’s economy for the future, the nurture of STEM-based education – in particular, Mathematics and Science for young women – is vital. In 2014, Penrhos joined in partnership with the Harry Perkins Institute of Medical Research to help establish the Profs@Perkins program, a medical research course for secondary school students that exposes them to opportunities in STEM to frame possible future career pathways. The aim is to support high-achieving Science and Maths students in their exploration of the wider study area of STEM, as they cultivate the kind of growth mindset, critical thinking and problem solving that employers seek.

The Harry Perkins Institute of Medical Research in Nedlands is a state-of-the-art research centre and home to some of the brightest scientific minds. Here, WA’s top research scientists and clinical staff work together – and collaboratively, with scientists from all over the world - to advance medical research and develop innovative biomedical solutions to help combat disease. Over the past two decades, this not-for-profit Institute has grown to become one of Australia’s leading medical research centres. After Penrhos’ successful trial program, the Profs@Perkins initiative - now in its eighth year – was extended, and the course is now offered to more than 16 participating schools, running for 10 weeks all year round with an average of 16 students per cohort. 

Working alongside medical research scientists, participating Penrhos Year 11 students learn laboratory skills and experiment in biochemistry as they are challenged to question, explore, think, collaborate and research some of our most complex health challenges - including cancer, diabetes and cardiovascular disease. The intensive hands-on course combines device technology with more traditional lectures, laboratory investigations and a rigorous and ‘up close and personal’ immersion into the real world of Western Australian medical research.

This week, Penrhos College students will graduate from the Profs@Perkins program, having experienced this unique opportunity to explore and establish their interest in STEM, along with practical experience to inform further studies. Our Profs@Perkins graduates also benefit from gaining invaluable first-hand appreciation of the significance and reward of pursuing medical research as a career pathway.

Girls and women continue to make significant progress in terms of their participation in STEM programs; however, gender bias still exists. Proudly pioneering STEM for girls, Penrhos recently invested almost $11 million in the College’s dedicated Science Innovation Centre which launched in early 2021 as one of Western Australia’s most advanced STEM educational facilities for girls. The overarching objective was to create a dedicated, inspirational teaching and learning environment for STEM subjects and STEM-related areas by providing a versatile and flexible learning space that is resilient to future change and supportive of fast-evolving pedagogy.

The three-story Science facility provides the perfect context in which for students to explore their interests, create and innovate in a stimulating and technologically advanced setting.  The building incorporates all the traits of a real-life work environment, including multi-functional labs, break-out collaboration spaces, an amphitheatre-style presentation space (which supports live-streaming of lectures), an outdoor lab and a rooftop deck with views over Perth city. This superb facility is designed to help prepare the next generation of female students for further study and future career options in STEM related fields.

The advent of Covid-19 is a bleak reminder of the critical importance of medical research. For the students of Penrhos – a generation of girls growing up through the worst pandemic in more than 100 years – the challenges are real, complex and personal. As the world continues to transform and adapt, schools must consider new and advanced approaches for students, to ensure the best possible preparation for real-life demands and employment futures. By working with the Harry Perkins Institute through the Profs@Perkins program, Penrhos College ensures its girls have the kind of real-world experience that will equip them to continue to close the critical STEM gender gap, to compete with confidence for roles in typically male-dominated areas, and to make a valuable contribution to Australia’s economy and the workforce of the future.


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