If New Zealand wants more females to take up careers in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths), schools need to start thinking differently.

The first thing they need to do is start showing girls how exciting these subjects can be much, much earlier.

After the age of 12, girls have already given in to the stereotype that subjects like science and maths are boring, pointless and, worst of all, the domain of the boys.

This is according to Mikayla Stokes, one of New Zealand’s up and coming young science and tech inventors and entrepreneurs – who at 18, is only just out of school herself – and says that by age 12, if they haven’t already been shown that STEM subjects can be fun and interesting, the opportunity to gain girls’ interest has already passed.

“A lot of the time it comes down to friends,” says Stokes. “Many teens take subjects because their friends are taking them: ‘My friends aren’t taking science and math, so science and math aren’t cool’. And that is a real issue for girls from around 12 years and up.

“At that age, every decision they make is about what other people will think, not necessarily about what they are interested in.”

As well as looking at ways to get girls interested in STEM subjects at an earlier age, Stokes says the second thing schools need to do is look at ways to make these subjects more exciting by making them projected-based rather than textbook focused.

She believes that it is competitions like the Skills Bright Sparks competition, where school children are encouraged to use their creativity to create science and technology inventions, when the subjects kids are learning at school – such as science and mathematics – really come alive.

And Mikayla would know. She herself has won that particular competition – twice – as well as an EY Young Enterprise award and been shoulder-tapped to appear in two TV shows as a young science and tech inventor. She is adamant that opportunities like the Bright Sparks competition, where kids get to invent and create real-world applications of school subject matter, is crucial to making change.

“This is where kids can really see the practical application of what they learnt in class. Where they can actually marry science and engineering with creativity and fun,” says Stokes.

“The key to getting young people interested in tech is getting them to play around – so tech also doesn’t always have to be electronics and coding. At a young age, it’s great to encourage designing stuff like Rube Goldberg machines, where you use physics as well as technology – knocking over a marble which rolls down a ramp which knocks over this next thing and then will do something like pour you a glass of juice.

“So, it is making it fun. That is the key, I believe, to getting kids interested.”

Stokes, at just 18 years of age, is already a role model to school aged children, particularly girls, in the area of science and tech. She is a regular speaker at tech-related events and is also an ambassador for Skills Bright Sparks, the technology competition that sees school-aged children design some of the most exciting inventions, gizmos, experiments and gadgets.

“When I tell kids about competitions like Skills Bright Sparks, and about other opportunities out there for creating fun inventions and getting involved in science and tech, they get really inspired. So somehow we need to get schools building this kind of project-based learning into their curriculum.”

“And if they do it earlier, then those stereotypes that STEM is not fun, or is only for boys, won’t even be part of the equation.”

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