Podcast Special: Dissolving the gender gap in STEM

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From Teacher magazine, I'm Rebecca Vukovic, and you're listening to a special podcast episode.

My guest today is Ashley Stewart, a Mathematics teacher from Newton Moore Senior High School in Bunbury, Western Australia. Just recently, Ashley was named in the top 50 shortlist for the Varkey Foundation Global Teacher Prize and, in fact, she was the only Australian educator to make the coveted list for 2020. In today's episode we talk about how she focuses on dissolving the gender gap in STEM at her school by boosting girls' uptake and engagement in these subjects. Ashley also shares details of some of the STEM programs she's introduced, including a spatial training program and an international school partnership, which have improved academic achievement, but also student engagement and enjoyment in their lessons. Here's Ashley.

Rebecca Vukovic: Ashley Stewart, thanks for joining Teacher magazine.

Ashley Stewart: Thanks for having me here today.

RV: So first of all, congratulations on being named in the Top 50 finalists for the Global Teacher Prize this year. It's a tremendous achievement and I definitely want to talk about it more, later in the episode. But I thought it would be good to rewind back to the beginning of your career. So I'm curious, why did you decide to become a teacher in the first place?

AS: Thanks for that. The Global Teacher Prize is going to be an amazing thing to work through for the next year so I'm really excited to be a part of that and I'm glad we'll touch on that later. When I started to look at teaching, so I went to university and I attended the Colorado School of Mines, which is an engineering university in the United States, that's where I'm from originally. I found the ratio of males to females was about 8:1 and I felt that women were just underrepresented and there wasn't much support for getting women into the STEM fields. And I noticed that when I was in high school as well. I felt that if I became a Maths teacher, I could help support younger women in getting into higher level maths, which would then support them and prepare them to get into the STEM fields and STEM careers, not just engineering but other careers that involve using mathematics and higher level mathematics.

RV: Fantastic, so could you tell me a bit about your career then. So how you started and then how you came to be Deputy Principal of Newton Moore Senior High School?

AS: Yeah, so I moved to Australia in 2007 and I completed my Bachelor's Degree at the University of Wollongong in 2010 and I completed my Masters degree at the same University of Wollongong in 2011, while I worked full-time at a Montessori school in Wollongong as well. I really enjoyed working at the Montessori school and I believe that has inspired a large part of my way of teaching and working with students. I moved to WA [Western Australia] in 2012 and I started as a graduate teacher here at Newton Moore Senior High School in Bunbury. I had a baby and worked part-time at another school for a couple of years, and then I applied for the Head of Maths and I won that position in 2017 and I was really excited to be able to really expand maths and utilise my passion to create an amazing department. So I did that from 2017, 18 and 19; and then, from that work, I was selected as an Acting Deputy Principal for this year – so that's Term 1 and Term 2. So I'm really excited to be able to expand my knowledge and being able to help other departments around the school with the work that I've done in the Maths Department for the last three years.

RV: Fantastic. And I guess for listeners who perhaps aren't familiar with Bunbury in Western Australia, could you tell listeners a bit about the context of your school, but also your local community?

AS: Yeah, so Newton Moore is an independent public school. It's a low socioeconomic school with a 20 per cent Indigenous population and a 9 per cent ESL [English as a Second Language] population. We have about 55 per cent male, 45 per cent female distribution of students with about 56 full-time teaching and 26 non-teaching staff. Newton Moore is a Science and Engineering specialist school and has a sport program. It also has a Clontarf [Foundation] which is an Indigenous Boys' Academy and a Role Model, so the Indigenous Girls' Academy. At Newton Moore we really realise the importance of STEM – Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths – to the future careers of students and we have an emphasis on STEM curriculum and pathways, especially in Mathematics.

There are a high number of students attending Newton Moore that are from trauma backgrounds and much of our work and time at school is encompassed by that work. When our students come to school they have already overcome so many barriers, getting a uniform, getting food and even just getting to school. We offer uniforms for loan and food for students in need and, as a public school, we don't have extensive amounts of funding and I often buy food with my own money and use award funds for special projects to support the students. And I've used my award funds before to fund scholarships for girls as well.

And as a specialist Engineering and Science school, we do attract some higher end families as well, which we do really well to cater for academically with our gifted and talented students, but also with our students that fall behind national minimum standards. In Mathematics, specifically, we offer subjects from Foundations Maths all the way to Specialist, to cater for everybody that we can. And in lower school we offer extension classes as well as targeted classes, so we can engage every single student in the best way we actually can. And it allows us to cater for the backgrounds and cultures of our unique and individual students so they can get the most from their education – so we do a really good job of that at our school.

RV: The thing I wanted to pick up on first was that gender gap in STEM because I've read that a lot of your work focuses on dissolving the gender gap by boosting girls' uptake and engagement in these areas. But I'm wondering, how do you actually do this in practice?

AS: Yeah that's a really, really good question. I've actually asked myself that a couple of times. I've had a review of my methodologies here. So, I think the first thing that I do is I build really good relationships with all the girls at the school but with the Girls' Academy as well and the staff across the school. Without the strong relationships that my staff and myself have developed, the work could not be done – so that's the most important thing. And then I started running STEM projects for the Girls' Academy. At first it was out of my own pocket, just to show the girls that there's a purpose to education and that there are so many pathways that they can take to getting a career – whatever that career may look like – whether it's a phlebotomist, whether it's a nurse, whether it's a cosmetic tattoo artist – there are so many options that they can pursue.

And then I introduced a spatial training program for Year 7-9. The spatial training is actual Dr Sheryl Sorby's program from Higher Ed Learning and it helps students understanding interpreting direction, orientation, perspective, visual 2D and 3D shapes. It also works on constructing 3D shapes from small and large blocks, working on mental construction and nets. A good thing about the program is it's interactive with online modules, written work and hands-on material, and it helps students problem solve, planning, visualisation, motivation to achieve in mathematics. And the best part is, it's a fun way to improve mathematics achievement without kids knowing that they're doing something that involves mathematics. Because we've done some spatial races at school where they're running around trying to orient this 3D object that they've built in the right vertex and it's amazing to see them having fun but also learning at the same time. So they really enjoy that.

And with the work that we've done, we have passionate Maths teachers – which is also a bit part of why we're having such success bridging the gap for girls, because most of my staff are actually female maths teachers as well, which is fantastic. And I do run PL [Professional Learning] for my staff and we work really hard together to get the best outcomes – well-trained teachers, passionate teachers, improving outcomes for these girls. And I think that is a whole package of things that we do to bridge the gap for these girls.

RV: I'd like to pick up now and talk a little bit more about the spatial training program that you just mentioned. I'm wondering, why was the program important for your students, why did you decide to establish it? But also, how does it actually work?

AS: So that spatial training program was through the research of Dr Sheryl Shorby – she saw improvements in female STEM fields from doing the work in the spatial visualisation and the spatial training. So there are different modules that the students do, I think there are 10 modules, and we've broken it up to kind of align with the curriculum in [Year] 7, 8 and 9 – so they do three modules in Year 7, four in Year 8 and three in Year 9. And they do an online module which they can actually rotate, visualise objects and they see how they work. And then they do hands-on written work and then they also use blocks to build things to manipulate. So, it really builds their problem-solving and visualisation skills, which is a key component of mathematics and STEM fields. So the research Dr Sorby did showed that girls, their participation in STEM and their achievement in STEM was improving using spatial visualisation.

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RV: Ashley, it really seems like you take quite a creative approach to your lessons. But I'm wondering, are there any particular lessons or activities that you've found really work to engage your students?

AS: Yeah, we've incorporated a lot of STEM projects through Year 7 to 12 and in particular there are some amazing projects that we've run. But one of them was, in 2017 we had a group of Indigenous girls that created hand cranked phone chargers. They were given a design brief that, they were all using their phones but they had no way of charging them when they were out or at school. So, they developed an idea to build a hand cranked phone charger and that's what they designed and tested and created and it worked. Then they were so busy thinking of this idea, saying, ‘you know what? It could be better'. So then they decided to build a bike cranked phone charger, and then they wanted to do solar panels, so then they got solar panels and did solar powered phone chargers – and it just spirals on from there, when you give kids the ability to choose the way they learn and to choose the activities they can create, it was amazing.

So that was one project that really gained student attention. The next one was, we did a bacteria growth project where we had phlebotomists and doctors that came in to work with them and they learned about the bacteria that grew around the school and they actually made a video of that which was really fantastic. Because then they presented it at an assembly to say, ‘this is the best way to make sure you're clean so that when you come to school, to wash your hands, proper hygiene, how to use the drink fountains' – it was really, really a good thing for the whole school. It was quite a fantastic little project and they submitted that project on YouTube, so people can see that on YouTube … they submitted it to the ChooseMaths awards as well.

And we've done many more projects, but one was a biomechanics project that we did with physios and netball trainers. We did coding for drawings, so some of the Indigenous boys got to draw Indigenous flags using coding which was really exciting for them. And I've done some STEM projects with the Education Support school on our site as well where we developed anaerobic digesters so they could see the importance of recycling and what we could do with recycled foods and the importance of food wastage. We also have done projects on sound wave travels – creating an amplification device.

There are so many that we have done and I think the projects give students an idea of how education can be so different but you're still learning the mathematics or the science or the engineering that comes behind it.

RV: Yeah, definitely. There are so many different examples there of how you can engage students and I'm sure, that YouTube video that you mentioned, we'll link to that also in the transcript for the podcast, for any of the listeners who are interested in seeing that YouTube video. But Ashley I also understand that you've established partnerships with other Australian schools and, in fact, some international schools as well. What are some of the benefits you've seen from students connecting with their peers from across the globe?

AS: Yeah so in 2013 (I think that's when it was), I worked with the Science department, because I worked in Science then as the Engineering teacher, to develop a partnership with the Singapore Chinese Girls' School and a few schools, like Hale College in Perth, to develop Engineering links, and to develop links where we can have partnerships where we go to Singapore and they come here. And the partnerships were just an amazing way – I took some of the students to do the Model United Nations Conference at the Singapore Chinese Girls' School in 2013, and it was just amazing to see kids working together from around the globe and developing ideas together and developing a partnership that they wouldn't normally have just inside our school at Bunbury. So they get to expand their horizons and become global citizens. It was just an amazing opportunity for that one.

Some of the other partnerships I've developed are through the ChooseMaths awards and the Australian Maths and Science Institute and also through the Australian SchoolsPlus and CommBank Teacher Fellowships. The 12 fellows, we have such a good relationship where we can actually talk to each other, share resources and bond that way. Through the ChooseMaths awards, I've linked with some other schools to share resources or develop professional learning for them – anything that people are wanting, I'd happily share the work that I do, and my staff do as well. We've delivered some PD on spatial training at conferences in Perth and southwest development days as well.

RV: And I'd also like to hear about you work with parents, in particular, the learning lessons for parents to better help them understand their children and their maths lessons?

AS: Yeah so I ran after-school sessions for interested parents and it was just a way to show them how to help at home, where to access resources, what programs we followed and to answer any questions they might have about maths. We often find that parents will say, ‘I was never good at maths, I can't help my kids' – and we're trying to break that stereotype to say, ‘yet'. ‘You might not be able to know it now, but we'll get it there. You don't know it yet.' So we're helping them establish a line of communication for: Where can they access resources? How can they get in contact with us? What can they do to help their student at home? And it also helps them when they get nervous around the NAPLAN [National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy], the OLNA [Online Literacy and Numeracy Assessment], ATAR [Australian Tertiary Admission Rank], it just helps us show them that ‘this is like a NAPLAN practice', or ‘this is OLNA, this is what it really means', ‘this is the ATAR course your student is doing. It actually is really rigourous, so you know, when they don't get all A's on it, it's okay. There's a lot of scope for getting good results in ATAR that don't revolve around just getting A's because courses can be very, very difficult.'

And I've talked to a number of parents about that work and just making sure that they know how to help their kids at home and then I've also helped some primary schools, their Numeracy Coordinators at our feeder primary schools, just with ideas to improve Numeracy at their school. So it's kind of open not just to parents but community as well.

RV: Fantastic. And Ashley, what have been some of the positive results that you've been able to achieve with students, I guess both academically but also socially and emotionally, since implementing some of these programs?

AS: Yeah we have more positive attitudes towards maths and attending classes at Newton Moore. When I came in 2017 we actually had quite a few students refusing to go into classes and would get kicked out quite frequently. And we don't see it anymore. We have students willing and wanting to go into maths classes, asking for more work. I write maths problems up on the window of the Maths department and you'll see kids outside at recess and lunch, taking photos, (well they used to, but now there no phones at school), they'll write them down and they'll do the maths problems – and they could be any year maths problems – and they do them and they submit them. They're just more enthusiastic about doing the work, but I think that's because we have such passionate Maths teachers, encouraging them to do the work.

We've seen better results with our lower end students making higher gains; we've seen higher NAPLAN and higher OLNA achievement, and more females taking higher level maths which I'm really, really happy about. And we have students that are winning awards in mathematics. We had one of our students win a DIG-IT scholarship that he won and he got to do a course on that. We had another student who won a Curious Minds scholarship, so she got to go to a few different places in Canberra for that work. And then we had another student who won the CSIRO Indigenous Maths award and it's so rewarding to see our students gaining the knowledge, but also being recognised for their work as well. It's the best part of it that I see.

RV: And finally, you've been named in the top 50 finalists for the 2020 Global Teacher Prize. And for anyone who isn't aware of the prize, it's awarded annually by the Varkey Foundation. This year, Ashley is the only Australian teacher to make the coveted list, and in a few months the list will be shortened again to the top 10, and in October in London, the overall winner will be announced. That winning teacher will receive US $1 million in prize money, so it's a huge achievement to make the top 50, given 12 000 nominations from over 140 countries were received by the organisers. Ashley, what does it mean to you personally to be acknowledged in this way?

AS: I think it's amazing for a Mathematics teacher to be recognised this way. It's great for any teacher to be recognised this way. All teachers work extremely hard to give students the best education that we can and it's an amazing thing for the Varkey Foundation to do – to recognise outstanding teachers across the world, every year. It's an amazing, amazing thing that they do. Because I feel like sometimes teachers don't get the recognition for all the hard work that they do. It's an honour and a pleasure to be selected in this position. Teachers are a vital resource and ensuring we recognise the teaching profession is highly important. This recognition is great for my school and my community to show the amazing achievements we, as a collaborative whole, have achieved over the last few years. So it's honestly an honour.

RV: Fantastic, well Ashley Stewart, thank you for sharing your work with Teacher magazine and best of luck for the top 10 announcement later this year.

AS: Thank you so much, it's been a great pleasure speaking to you today.

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UPDATE 12 May 2020:

To facilitate inclusive learning opportunities for young people during the educational disruption caused by COVID-19, Ashley Stewart has announced her support for UNESCO's new Global Education Coalition. The aim of the coalition is to help sustain the education of more than 1.5 billion learners across the planet affected by school and university closures.

‘The coronavirus crisis has amplified inequalities in education and this is having an even greater impact on Indigenous and female students from disadvantaged communities,' Stewart says.

‘Governments must ensure that when schools are closed, and even when they reopen, no student is left behind. I also call on teachers from around the world to support the Global Education Coalition to ensure their voices are at the heart of its mission to support learners at this unprecedented time.'

How does your school work to boost girls’ uptake and engagement in STEM subjects? Have you found an approach to be particularly effective? How does this help these students with their career opportunities in the future?

Ashley Stewart introduced a whole range of different programs and projects to pique students’ interest in STEM subjects and open them up to a world of new opportunities. Is this something you actively do in your classroom? Do you create partnerships with other schools or organisations to do this?