In an Australian first, girls as young as four will have the opportunity to feel empowered to participate in STEM activities in Australian classrooms, through an emphasis on play-based learning.

STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) is a curriculum designed to educate students in these four specific disciplines by integrating them into a cohesive learning paradigm based on real-world applications.

Research conducted by Professor Marilyn Fleer, Foundation Chair in Early Childhood Education and Development at Monash University, has found that girls are just as interested in STEM activities as their male peers.

Professor Fleer’s research also found that when girls show interest in such activities, they are often persuaded by boys to give up their building materials or equipment.

In an effort to #CHANGEIT, Professor Fleer has created the Conceptual PlayLab, designed to research how play-based education can deliver essential cognitive learning outcomes in STEM for children of all ages, especially young girls.

Professor Fleer says COVID-19 played a large role in highlighting the need for greater knowledge and engagement in STEM.

“In unprecedented times, the global community is calling for greater knowledge and engagement in STEM to support the decision-making and practices of the general community. COVID-19 has highlighted this pressing need,” she says.

“In contrast, most governments around the world have reported that there is a declining number of graduates in STEM-related fields and a growing disengagement in STEM within schools, particularly for girls and children from culturally diverse backgrounds.”

The $3.2 million project funded by the Australian Research Council (ARC) will involve testing a new model of teaching called Conceptual PlayWorld, which will support teachers and parents alike to help children form ideas and use their imagination through a play-based world.

Professor Fleer says that results have suggested that the Conceptual PlayWorld’s conditions could be the answer to making a difference to girls’ engagement and learning in STEM.

“In our educational experiment we implemented a Conceptual PlayWorld over 12 weeks, with a specific focus on role-playing and acting ‘as if’ engineers and scientists researching problems, being in engineering teams, and designing and prototyping solutions,” she says.

“The outcomes show how Conceptual PlayWorld gives girls access to resources, positions them as leaders of engineering teams, values their contributions in scientific discussions, and shows consistent use by girls of technical language, design visualisation, and critical and problem solving thinking associated with engineering.”

Consequently, Professor Fleer concludes STEM is very much for girls.

“They have and can take a leading role in STEM explorations during play. This suggests a girl’s identity in STEM is being developed at the beginning of their early explorations of these fields of inquiry and practice,” she says.

The study will continue with teachers, parents and students in schools across Australia with the support of PhD candidate Tanya Stephenson.

By @anastasiamonaghan