• Students on the CSIRO Young Indigenous Womens' STEM Academy camp in Cairns (CSIRO)Source: CSIRO
The CSIRO Young Indigenous Women's STEM Academy is backing young women with goals to work in STEM, through a series of on-country camps and a ten-year-long program packed with practical support.
Rae Johnston

11 Mar 2020 - 10:07 AM  UPDATED 12 Mar 2020 - 8:28 AM

In 2018, Torres Strait Islander woman Cassandra Diamond approached CSIRO to address the chronic under-representation of Indigenous women in science, technology, engineering and maths. 

Ten years earlier, just 12 Indigenous women had completed a STEM-related degree and in 2013 that number rose to just 38, yet Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women have had an ongoing relationship with STEM dating back thousands of years.

When those young women enter the workforce, there is no official reporting on their numbers.

Australia's Chief Scientist, whose STEM Workforce report details the number of women in STEM, does not include specific data for Indigenous Women.

"We don't currently have the level of data," a spokesperson told NITV News. 

In January, the first CSIRO Young Indigenous Women's STEM Academy camps were held in Cairns and Townsville. In July, further camps will be held in Perth, western Sydney and the central coast.

"A group of us black women went to CSIRO and said "we really think we should do this", and they went 'okay'." Ms Diamond told NITV News.

"I've been really impressed with the level of support we've got. [CSIRO] really want to see a generation of bright, young, black women who can come and work with us."

The CSIRO Young Indigenous Women's STEM Academy enrols students at 13 years of age. For the next ten years, it gives them tools and support to succeed in a STEM career. The camps are a big part of that, showing STEM through a lens of Indigenous knowledge, process and technology. They also teach the students how they can work in STEM without leaving their community.

"We are already scientists."

The number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people going into a formal STEM career is increasing, slowly. Ms Diamond says more young people are making the connection between being an Aboriginal person.

"As we do more in this space, you start to see a lot more mob picking up the idea that we are already scientists." she said.

There are barriers, however, discouraging Indigenous women in particular from pursuing a STEM career. This program is focused on ways to smash them.

"The number one thing we need to do with women in high school is to make sure young women do STEM subjects at school," said Ms Diamond. "They need to have a context of what STEM looks like and how that works for them."

Mentors, coaches and supporters are a necessity -- if that's family, even better.

"A lot of young women we've spoken to talk about people who have encouraged, supported, directed and guided them," said Ms Diamond.

If you can't see it, you can't be it. Visible role models are needed to encourage more young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women to pursue a STEM career. Luckily, we have an abundance of trailblazers -- some of who put heir hands up to be involved in the academy.

Karlie Noon is a Gaamilaraay woman who just completed a Masters of Astronomy and Astrophysics with Australian National University. She spent the last week with the Townsville camp, and spoke to NITV news about the importance of First Nations involvement in STEM.

"We have been systematically kept out of these spaces and STEM contributes significantly to social changes," said Ms Noon. "We need mob in STEM to embed our values into the future of this country."

For a lot of young women, it's simply a case of not knowing what is available to them, what their options are.

"They knew they had an interest in antarctic science, but they didn't know they could make a living out of it. And they didn't know there was a university degree they could do." said Ms Diamond.

"I've heard a lot of stories from women who say 'I was reading through that university book trying to work out what to do when I left year 12, and I found this job and thought I'd really like to do that. And that's how I ended up at Uni.'

"What I'd like to do is help them have that in year 8, do some of that early, so they are five or six steps ahead by the time they get to year 12."

The camps and the communities

As well as providing that ongoing mentorship and support and encouragement, the CSIRO Young Indigenous Women's STEM Academy camps are attempting to expose the young women to as many different views on STEM as possible.

"We are doing the camps at the beginning of the program so we can get the girls together," Ms Diamond said. "Everything I've ever done tells me that one girl in a high school on her own is not going to succeed. These young women need peers; they need to be a part of a group with support."

"But we are also establishing a view of the community."

Each camp is different, focusing on the variety of STEM careers available in that place. The aim is to highlight the option of studying, then working within your community. You don't have to leave to work in STEM.

In Cairns, camp participants worked with Mibu Fischer, a Marine Ecologist and Quandamooka woman who recently returned from participating in research on the CSIRO Research Vessel Investigator. They looked at the 'Eye on the Reef' monitoring survey, collecting information about reef health and marine animals.

There was also a workshop on learning maths through traditional dancing, and time spent with Indigenous rangers exploring bush medicines and plant science on country.

"From an organisational perspective, to deliver on our purpose to solve the greatest challenges, and to unlock benefit for all Australians, CSIRO needs to reflect the diversity that we see in society," Mary Mulcahy, Director of Education and Outreach for CSIRO told NITV News. "We need a wide range of skills, knowledge and cultural perspectives to understand and solve the big questions for today and the future."

"Personally, I have come to realise that Indigenous women have always played an important role in STEM in their communities. It is a privilege for us work with young Indigenous women, traditional owners and families to support the ongoing practice of Indigenous women’s STEM knowledge and practice."

Applications for next camps close on March 20. High achieving Year 8 Indigenous women based in Perth, Western Sydney and Central Coast NSW are invited to apply

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