Engineering is the cornerstone of the infrastructure, services, products and systems that serve Australia’s diverse population, yet still only 12% of the engineering workforce is female. To secure our future economy, the nurture of STEM-based education – in particular, for young women – is vital. Engineering Australia notes that girls’ lower participation rates are attributed to lower levels of confidence in what are often considered to be typically male-dominated subjects such as Maths.
Penrhos Principal Kalea Haran says breaking down gender stereotypes and inspiring girls to discover joy and curiosity in exploring all the world has to offer is part of the College ethos. “We are reshaping perceptions of STEM – including Maths - as a journey of discovery, to be embraced with fascination and wonder. Students respond to challenges most successfully when they are surrounded by positive and passionate peers, mentors and teachers.”
Penrhos’ Maths Mentor program, which is open to girls from Year 4 to Year 12, introduces students to a wide range of mathematics enthusiasts - including international academics, industry professionals, university mentors and passionate past students. Older girls quickly take on the mantle of home-grown mentors, supporting and encouraging younger participants to think differently, apply their mathematical thinking to daily life, and become immersed in mathematical activities both inside and outside of the College.
Now in its 14th year, Penrhos’ unique Maths Mentor initiative continues to attract international recognition for both students and for the College, with a continuing upward trajectory of increasing participation - more than 80 girls sign up each year and, on average, 90% go on to study a STEM-based course after Year 12.
Recently released research shows that, when given the opportunity to work with relevant female role models, girls are more likely to show a positive interest in STEM-related subjects. As part of its commitment to constantly evolving its STEM proposition, Penrhos is currently launching a partnership with construction giant Laing O’Rourke in a STEM+ interactive program designed to showcase diverse career pathways in engineering, safety, sustainability, commercial management and legal areas.
“Senior female members of the team at Laing O’Rourke will offer our students career advice specifically relating to each module,” says Brenton Marlow, Head of Science at Penrhos. “There will also be opportunities for work experience, site visits and up-close experience of the cutting-edge technology that is used in the construction industry.”
Penrhos’ annual Girls in Engineering Outreach Program is run in partnership with the University of Western Australia and Rio Tinto (whose Chief Executive, Australia, Kellie Parker is a member of the Penrhos College alumni) and is a well-established window into the world of real-world STEM careers. Mine site visits include mentor talks from female mining and mechatronics engineers, facilities managers, drill and blast operators, emergency services staff and environmental advisors – all help to illustrate the opportunity for students to think beyond conventional career stereotyping in their further study and career choices.
As a first in class, Penrhos is proud to have been the original school partner in the Harry Perkins Institute of Medical Research’s Profs@Perkins program (launched in 2014), in which it proudly continues to participate today. This highly acclaimed course is now offered to a further 16 other schools, offering students first-hand experience of biomedical engineering - i.e. taking engineering design and principles together with computing, mathematics, life sciences and medicine to improve the diagnosis, treatment and prevention of disease and disability.
Emma and Neil Jones are engineers and parents of Year 3 Penrhos student, Hannah. Both acknowledge there is a real drive to engage more young women with engineering as a career and they say they are slowly observing positive change.
Emma’s love of engineering grew through exposure to real places, real people – visiting bridges and mine sites, being able to talk through what is involved in each project. “Providing students with opportunities to engage directly with people from different fields is essential - excursions and site visits can really inspire their interest”, says Emma.
In considering what makes a good engineer, Neil says “having an inquisitive mind, one that is keen to challenge and question things,” says Neil, “as well as the willingness to put ideas forward.”
“Analytical ability too,” says Emma, “you need to understand the basic data and then apply it. Communication skills are critical because people may have limited knowledge of your field, so you need to help them understand what you are saying and why it matters.”
“Our daughter has an obvious interest in the sciences and maths,” says Neil “she is part of the lunchtime STEM Club and the afterschool Future Problem-Solving Club, which she loves. That said, she loves dance and drama just as much!”
Today’s young people are growing up through economic turbulence, pandemic and rapid technological advancement. The challenges they face are real, complex and thought-provoking. They want to learn to problem-solve in the context of impactful real-world projects. They want to become effective critical thinkers, with the mental toughness to calculate risks and act decisively.
The concept of ‘mental toughness’ is explained by psychometrics consultancy AQR International as a mindset that is closely related to character, resilience, grit and learned optimism and which strongly correlates with performance, wellbeing, positive behaviours, aspirations and employability. Like a growth mindset, mental toughness can be nurtured, learned and developed over time – Principal Kalea Haran says it is integral to the Penrhos learning environment.
“Research shows that girls as young as six can already have their confidence eroded by stereotyping and social pressure - that’s why we encourage girls to start with us as early as possible. Through stimulating wonder and fascination, our students are encouraged to explore their interests, find their strengths, grow their character and engineer their futures from the start.”
To learn more, visit www.penrhos.wa.edu.au or call (08) 9368 9672 to book a personal tour.