Bridging the gap between Indigenous girls and STEM education in Australia

May 10, 2017
University of NewcastleThis blog is part of the UN Girls’ Education Initiative’s #STEMtheGap series,  focussing on women and girls in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. 


Marking the launch of UNGEI’s series on women and girls in STEM, we connected with Karlie Noon to talk about her journey into STEM as a young Kamilaroi Australian woman.

Karlie has achieved a lot of impressive firsts in her academic career – from being the first person in her family to attend university, to graduating as the first Indigenous student in her state of New South Wales with a double degree in science and mathematics.

In Australia, indigenous students have drastically less exposure and participation in STEM subjects, when compared to non-Indigenous students – especially at early years, with Indigenous girls doubly disadvantaged in terms of access.

In the conversation that follows Karlie shares from her personal experience, what attracted her to the scientific field, why we need to engage young girls in STEM, and how to start solving STEM’s diversity problem in Australia.

UNGEI: Can you share a bit about your relationship with STEM education at primary and secondary level – what were some of the challenges and what was the catalyst for your early interest in science and mathematics?

KARLIE: I did not have a strong interest in STEM at school or school in general. Outside of school I was tutored by an Aboriginal Elder in mathematics. We would play mathematics games and she taught me my times tables from a young age. She was the only person I knew that had been to university and ignited my interest in mathematics and learning in general. Unfortunately, I did not spend much time in school, but when I did I found that I was good in mathematics thanks to all the tutoring. I wasn’t good at anything due to my poor attendance so being good at mathematics gave me a huge amount of confidence and excitement about school.

UNGEI: A unique dimension of your work is that it blends both culture and science, can you explain to us some of the research that you have been working on?

KARLIE: I do a number of things including a Masters in Astronomy and Astrophysics and also research in Indigenous astronomy. My Masters research involves looking at gas clouds living just outside the Milky Way and observing their behaviour. The goal is to find out if the clouds contribute to stars within the Milky Way. My research in Indigenous astronomy looks at traditional weather predictors and how they relate to what is physically occurring in the lower atmosphere. I think understanding our position in the universe is incredibly important for advancing societies, and both research projects significantly contribute to our picture of the world.

UNGEI: Aside from being a Masters student in Astronomy and Astrophysics, and the work that you do with the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, you are also a science educator.  How do those challenges you faced as an adolescent contribute to your work getting young people excited about STEM?

KARLIE: I think my background has contributed hugely to my approach as a science communicator. My background allows me to engage and have meaningful connections with people from all different types of backgrounds and specifically those who do not have an interest or much access to STEM. I often meet a lot of students who are disengaged from school in general and I can empathise with that a lot. I try hard to use appropriate language and relevant content when working with students without being condescending or offensive.

UNGEI: What challenges have you faced as a female voice in such a male dominated environment – both academically and professionally?

KARLIE: I get hate mail from males but really that’s about it. In general, people are very respectful and interested in what I have to say. Some things I talk about are confronting, you cannot talk about Indigenous knowledge without acknowledging how much it has been disrespected in the past and some people are still in denial of that so the occasional hate mail just tells me I must be doing something right and it gives me strength more than anything.

UNGEI: What are some of the socio-economic barriers that Indigenous Australians face in having access to opportunities in STEM research, activities, and education? How can we make STEM opportunities for Indigenous youth, particularly girls, more accessible?

KARLIE: When I was doing my undergraduate degree I was surrounded by peers who still lived at home, had access to computers during their schooling and parents that were either working in STEM or went to university. None of these things applied to me. Access to STEM is essentially nonexistent for people from low socio-economic backgrounds. I think for a long time STEM was comprised of the same types of people who perpetuate stereotypes, making it even harder to access if you are not from that same background. In addition to that, there is this myth that traditional Indigenous people had no knowledge. It is propaganda originating from settlers in order to justify assimilation/colonisation. Remnants of this lie still exist lowering the confidence of Indigenous people when in actual fact we are the oldest living scientists and have incredibly complex knowledge systems.

I personally would love to see a national Indigenous science action plan developed and supported by the Australian Government which would aim to have Indigenous science implemented into the curriculum. This would make STEM relevant to Indigenous people, increasing participation and would also increase research into Indigenous STEM.

UNGEI: You are trailblazing as a woman in STEM in Australia, achieving a lot of impressive firsts and forging a guiding path for Indigenous youth and girls. That in mind, what do you think a future including more young women and girls in STEM might look like in Australia in 15 – 20 years?

KARLIE: In 15 years STEM would have an equal representation of male and females. Not only that, Australia would have many more people participating in STEM fields. The majority of future jobs will require STEM training and we already do not have enough people in these fields. Making STEM accessible to a larger diversity of people can only boost this number resulting in an increase Australian based research and technology.

Listen to more on Karlie’s journey into science research in this podcast.

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Alexis Stergakis (@lexistergakis) is the Advocacy and Communications Lead Consultant for the Secretariat for the United Nations Girls’ Education Initiative (UNGEI).

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