BY LAUREN PUGH – With the world rapidly changing, industries across New Zealand are too. The modern workforce calls for people who are not just proficient with core skills but also capable of solving complex problems. With innovative startups, scientific discoveries and technological industries being the wave of the future, are our young people experiencing STEM early enough?

As a young girl growing up in a small town in New Zealand, the worlds of Science, Technology and Innovation did not always permeate my everyday life. Instead, I was surrounded by The Spice Girls, Calf Days, Harry Potter pre-orders and my most ‘techy’ moment was recording songs off the radio onto my mum’s old mixtapes. It has been 20 years since the first Harry Potter film, and we have come a long way from cassettes – streaming platforms give me instant access to every Spice Girls album!

As a ’90s kid, I hit the sweet spot in the technology takeover – I was born in the age of landlines and pen pals and watched technology evolve into smartphones and Zoom calls.

Challenging the stereotypes

I had my first cellphone at age 13, I took Biology in high school, passed my exams and emerged a successful 18-year-old, ready to contribute to society. Many of my friends were already completing apprenticeships in a variety of trades while others like myself signed up for more ‘school’ in the form of University.

What did I want to do? 13 years of schooling prepared me for this decision. There was pressure to ensure that the path I chose, and the student debt accrued, would benefit me in the future. Did I pick the right subjects? Could I picture my workplace five years from now? My role?

Eventually, I completed my teacher training and discovered a passion for STEM within education. I started looking at the next generation. Were the 10-13 year olds in front of me being exposed to the roles of the future? If I had been when I was their age, before things like gender bias and stereotypes subconsciously influenced my decisions, would my path have been different? Hindsight is 20/20.

Research shows that a child’s career aspirations are narrow and often influenced by their surroundings. In this digital age, students want to become famous on YouTube or be a TikTok influencer. Many students in rural communities look towards careers in primary industries and trades. Why? Because this is what surrounds them and is a large part of their daily interactions.

With STEM industries becoming increasingly dominant in the recruitment market and the rapid growth of technology, will we have enough passion and talent emerging from our schools to fill the need?

Children aspire to careers they have seen performed or have personal connections to.. If not, they either don’t know it exists or they regard it as lofty. When looking at the research on students’ aspirations, lack of representation influences them. Students in low decile schools are less likely to be interested in jobs in science and technology. Math and engineering fields are still male-dominated, and Māori and Pasifika students are reluctant to pursue a career in STEM. Many of our tamariki are making up their minds much earlier and ifthey are not seeing themselves represented in these fields it is perceived as unattainable.

From my time in the classroom teaching STEM, I saw this firsthand.

Now, there is an exciting opportunity to bridge the gap between children’s career aspirations and the worlds of science and technology. By exposing students to homegrown kiwi who have ‘been there and done that’, we broaden horizons and inspire our young people to think,“If they can do it, so can I”.

Science Alive Mātauranga

This led me to my current role with Education Perfect (EP) and Science Alive Charitable Trust. Helping to create engaging online resources that inspire 8-12 year olds to explore science, technology and innovation, and interact with role models in STEM fields. With a large focus on inclusivity and connectedness, showcasing relatable experts and concepts of mātauranga Māori, children see themselves and the possibilities of their own journey in STEM.

Hosted on the EP platform, Science Alive Mātauranga is completely free to use and over 400 schools have joined in the past year.

‘Te ao o Mātai Pūhanga’ – The World of Engineering

Our latest resource, ‘Te ao o Mātai Pūhanga’ – The World of Engineering, is a collection of 12 lessons spanning 12 fields of engineering.

Our character Pūtaiao brings students along as they tackle real-world problem-solving opportunities and client briefs that engineers face in their roles. From developing a new app that tells the story of our Tūpuna, designing an allergen-friendly conveyor belt for school lunches, to helping native birds get a better night’s sleep with a new street light system, students imagine, design and justify new solutions while learning about the variety and innovation a role in engineering entails.