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article imageQ&A: Charity finds novel ideas to inspire young people in STEM Special

By Tim Sandle     Nov 21, 2018 in Business
Actua — a leading Canadian charity dedicated to increasing the accessibility and uptake of STEM for youth — is exploring novel ideas to promote STEM subjects among young people, based around gifts.
Each year, Actua puts together a Codemakers gift guide for parents that is filled with creative, science-related gifts that help incite curiosity and engagement. The aim is to encourage young people to pursue STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects or careers.
To discover more about the scheme, Digital Journal caught up with Jennifer Flanagan, CEO of Actua.
Digital Journal: What are the current rates for STEM subjects for higher education?
Jennifer Flanagan: There is a lot of variability in the various STEM degrees. Women are represented equally in biology and chemistry, leading to advanced areas like medicine. But in computer science and some engineering disciplines the number is still below 20%. Women’s representation also decreases as you move to more advanced levels of higher education like PhDs.
DJ: What is the impact on employment?
Flanagan: There are a number of factors to consider. First, the STEM sector is booming with jobs - there are far more jobs in STEM available to recent grads than any other field. These jobs are also among the highest paying jobs in country.
The impact of significantly fewer women graduating with STEM degrees than men is that the design and development of the everyday things we interact with including our cars, appliances, entertainment, innovations around climate change, will be done almost exclusively by men. At Actua, we want to make sure that girls feel empowered to pursue higher education and that their skills and confidence are strong enough to be the ones at the STEM table leading new innovations.
DJ: Are there differences between males and females in relation to taking STEM subjects?
Flanagan: Women with higher standardized testing scores in STEM are less likely to choose a STEM university program than men with lower scores (23 percent verses 39 percent). Women are just as capable in terms of achievement to pursue high education in STEM, they just aren’t choosing to at the rate men are.
DJ: What are the reasons for this?
Flanagan: The reasons are both cultural and systemic. While girls and young women are just as capable in STEM, they do not have the same support as boys do to pursue it from when they are young. Girls often hear and see the message that STEM isn’t for them. They often receive negative, albeit unintentional, messages from parents and teachers that reinforce the misconception that girls aren’t as good at science and math. They also don’t see as many examples of women in these fields and you can’t see it if you can’t be it!
We need the change the narrative we are having about girls in STEM to shift it to what changes are need in society instead of how girls need to change. We also need to engage girls early in conversations about the challenges and biases they will face so that they are aware that this is not a problem with them but a context problem.
In terms of systems change, we need to start seeing more leadership from the top in the STEM industry to hire more women in top positions, including C-suite and boards. I am supportive of setting quotas.
We also need to start paying women equally. The Government of Canada is taking leadership role in this with their recently announced legislation on gender pay equity. This will be transformational.
DJ: How can STEM education be promoted?
Flanagan: With kids spending almost twice the amount of time outside of school than inside, we believe it’s critical to take advantage of that time to build skills and confidence in STEM in a fun and accessible way. We encourage parents to talk to their kids about what kinds of problems they want to solve in their community, or more globally, and 9/10 their path to solving that problem will involve the application of science, technology, engineering or math.
Parents and teachers are the biggest influencers of youth and they have an important role to play in encouraging youth (especially girls), from a young age, to participate in STEM-based activities at home or in camps, clubs, and workshops that will ultimately give them the skills and confidence to pursue higher STEM education, and possibly a career.
DJ: What is Actua's mission?
Flanagan: Actua’s mission is to build skills and confidence among all youth in science, technology, engineering and math. Our focus is on engaging Canada’s most underserved and underrepresented youth including girls and young women, Indigenous youth, youth in Northern and remote communities so that our diverse population is contributing to the innovation economy.
DJ: How did you develop your gift guide?
Flanagan: Actua’s Codemakers gifts guide was originally inspired by our Codemakers program supported by Google Canada, which engages youth in hands on coding and digital skills activities. We found there was a ton of interest from parents and teachers on where they could get the items that their kids were learning with and excited about, so we decided to put together a list of these items each year. The list includes not only amazing tech gadgets and games, but also fun books to help kids of all ages learn about science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). Learning is fun and technology toys can be very educational.
DJ: What other activities are you undertaking?
Flanagan: While equipping youth with digital skills is a major focus for us, we are more broadly a STEM organization that works to get youth involved in all fields of science, technology, engineering and math. Actua’s 37 university and college based members across the country to provide community based, custom designed STEM programming for underserved and underrepresented youth including girls, Indigenous youth, Northern youth and those facing socio-economic challenges. These programs come in the form of camps, clubs and afterschool workshops, i.e. Robotics and engineering clubs for girls, and weeklong traditional knowledge based STEM camps for youth across in the arctic. We are also delivering for-credit on-the-land camps for Indigenous youth.
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