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University students head back to high school to help change the face of STEM

A Year 9 student (left) holds a marble at the top of a ramp. Lori Lu (right) looks on.
In2science mentor Lori Lu (right) helps a group of Year 9 students to conduct a physics experiment.

ABC News: Kim Jirik

A mentorship program in Victoria is taking university students studying science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) back to high school in the hope that they will inspire school students to follow in their footsteps.

As students in a Year 9 science class at Thomastown Secondary College use marbles, bricks and wooden ramps to conduct a series of experiments measuring speed, velocity and acceleration, software engineering student Rong "Lori" Lu is roaming, offering help and asking questions.

"When I was in a conversation with kids, I always try to talk about what I'm doing at uni," Ms Lu says.

"And I also always ask them, 'What's your passion? What [do you] want to do after going to uni?'."

In a classroom, Nabaa Al Gburi, Rowenna Kalimba and Keharn Hudson use calculators and write on a worksheet as Lori Lu looks on.
L-R: Nabaa Al Gburi, Rowenna Kalimba, Lori Lu and Keharn Hudson calculate the results of their experiment.

ABC News: Kim Jirik

Ms Lu is a mentor with the In2science program, which places university students from STEM disciplines in low socio-economic secondary schools in Victoria.

Classroom teacher Shobie Doraisingam seems glad of the extra help.

She says while Year 7 and 8 classes show enthusiasm for science, their interest tends to wane in Year 9 and 10.

"I think the kids need more encouragement at the 9/10 level. That's where they tend to fall off a little bit because their curiosity drops off," Ms Doraisingam says.

"So, when we have someone from university coming in and saying, 'This is what I'm doing at university', the [kids say], 'Oh really? I didn't know you could do that'."

Judging by the comments of some of the students, Ms Lu, who is currently doing an internship as a user experience designer, is having an impact.

Year 9 student Rowenna Kalimba did a STEM camp during the most recent school holidays.

"We did coding and data analytics [at the camp] — I've never done [that] before, so it was interesting," Rowenna says.

Although none of the students admit to science being their favourite subject, several of them now see a future in STEM.

"[Getting to know Lori] made me think that university could be an option later down the track," Rowenna's classmate Keharn Hudson says.

"The things that she did [at university] are cool, so I thought maybe [I could] try something like that."

Two students and Lori Lu watch Keharn Hudson release a marble at the top of a ramp outside a classroom.
Year 9 student Keharn Hudson (right) says she is considering going to university after hearing about Lori's experiences.

ABC News: Kim Jirik

Breaking down stereotypes

In2science program director Megan Mundy says that encouraging more young people to take an interest in STEM subjects also involves breaking down stereotypes.

"Typically, [school students imagine a scientist to be an] old man with fuzzy white hair in a lab coat," Ms Mundy explains.

Ms Mundy says that placing university student mentors in secondary schools through the In2science program was a way to challenge those perceptions.

As more Australian students turn away from STEM, the team behind In2science are hoping that their mentors will encourage school students to consider a future in those disciplines.

Ms Mundy says that it is particularly important to provide opportunities for students in low socio-economic schools.

"Studying STEM subjects gives you skills that make you very employable, and there is clear evidence that students from lower SES [socio-economic status] backgrounds do not do as well in maths," she says.

"If low SES students are not performing well in STEM subjects, then that's going to make them potentially less employable in the future."

Lori Lu and a group of four students observe a marble rolling down a ramp in a classroom.
In2science is hoping to break down stereotypes of scientists being "old men with fuzzy white hair in lab coats".

ABC News: Kim Jirik

In2science chair, former Victorian premier John Brumby, is worried that if interest in STEM subjects doesn't recover, Australia will lose its competitiveness in the region.

"If you look at Australia's performance compared with the rest of the world, particularly in our region … our performance is not keeping up," Mr Brumby says.

"There is so much public good benefit that comes from investment in science and medical research, and if you want those benefits, you've got to have more students at school level who are taking up maths and science and biology and chemistry and so on."

A chance for cultural exchange

Lori Lu is an international student from Wuxi, a city near Shanghai in China.

She says she was hoping to learn more about Australia through the In2science program, too.

"I wanted to know more about Australian culture itself," Ms Lu says.

"I think it's a great chance to talk to kids, because kids are more open than older people, so they will be very willing to talk to you about themselves."

Rowenna Kalimba (left) and Lori Lu (right) talk in front of a bank of lockers at a high school.
After meeting software engineering student Lori Lu (right), Year 9 student Rowenna Kalimba (left) is now considering a future in STEM.

ABC News: Kim Jirik

Ms Mundy says the program attracts a number of international students looking to engage with Australians.

"A lot of them wanted to see what an Australian school was like," she says.

"A lot of them wanted experiences in a different culture, and they also wanted to practise their English."

She says having international students involved also helps to further break down stereotypes of what a scientist looks like.

Although keen to learn more about Australia, Ms Lu says her primary goal in the program is to inspire students to see their potential.

"I want them to know they have the capability to do the science, and they should feel confident of their capability to do that," she says.