Environmental scientist Arjumand Khan (Arj) is passionate about the next generation learning about STEM – particularly her own daughters. After noticing a gap in STEM education, she teamed up with another mum in her local area, this time an electronic engineer, worked with their local school to develop a practical STEM club.
Pushing for change is not something unfamiliar to Arj. Born and educated in India, she says she always needed to fight to be heard as a woman in science.
“I often feel like I am the black swan in my community, talking about science when nobody knows what I am talking about,” she told Women’s Agenda. “I am used to that…but I want to see it change. I want to engage with people through science and it doesn’t come easily.”
Arj and the electronic engineer approached the school that their children attend – Sirius College – to do a pilot STEM club for the school. The school is one of the most multi-cultural in Melbourne, with many children heralding from Turkish, Indian and Pakistani backgrounds.
“It was a challenge getting the school to agree, but we had an excellent science teacher who backed us, and the principal got behind us too,” she said.
Last year the program – which attracted both girls and boys – was run and attracted an equal number of boys and girls. Arj says girls in the program have been drawn to the life science aspects of the program, rather than the engineering and technology (such as coding) parts.
“It has been difficult to attract girls to things we are doing around coding and technology, so we are working on that,” she says. “When in comes to chemistry and doing experiments girls were fighting to put their hands up.”
Children made “koala soup”, a “fancy analogy to teach students the process of extracting oil from eucalyptus leaves by steam distillation” and learned how to culture bacteria and the importance of good hygiene.
“We also learnt to code a Microbit and devised our very own version of digital rock, paper, scissors game by a very talented mum who is an electronic engineer,” Arj said.
The program has been renewed for another year and Arj is considering rolling out the program for other interested schools.
“It is utterly important to get young girls into STEM early. They have inquisitive minds, and if they don’t find the answers they need, they can feel lost,” she said. “Education is extremely important.”
Arj also volunteers on an environmental taskforce for the Hume Council and holds free community STEM workshops. “Engaging with the community on STEM is very important,” she said.