Engagement Leader of the Year Award

Maria Parappilly

Finalist of the Engagement Leader of the Year Award

"Enriching and empowering young women to progress in STEM."

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More women are needed to pursue STEM careers given the gender imbalance and future workforce needs. Research suggests enrichment programs can increase STEM interest but limited specific knowledge is available.

I initiated a STEM Women Branching Out group (STEMWBO) at Flinders University in 2015. A first of its kind in South Australia, it supports HDR students through professional development, empowering events and peer networks, and inspires high school students. The demand for its quality services is reflected in its growth from 16 to 412 students within nine months and thriving social media communities. Initiatives to inspire school girls include the Aurora Science Photo contest - in its fourth year and expanding year on year and the STEM Enrichment Academy.

The STEM Enrichment Academy was established through Federal Government funding and reached 421 Year 9 girls, well exceeding its target through three enrichment programs with excellent participation and success in reversing student attitudes on the difficulty of STEM careers. It hosted 141 girls in a 3-day intensive STEM Enrichment conference featuring 45 sessions (hands-on workshops), tours, industry talks, teacher training and round-table discussions The success of these unique programs has seen me named The Advertiser Woman of the Year Top Innovator!

Extensive industry and government collaboration were essential to the success of these programs and fostered financial and in-kind support. We are inspiring schoolgirls to pursue STEM at a critical time in subject decision-making; empowering teachers as advocates; supporting university students. Our research and analysis developing an evidence-base of what works.

Key People

A/Prof Maria Parappilly
Chief Investigator
STEM Enrichment Academy,  Flinders University

Professor Clare Lenehan
STEM Enrichment Academy,  Flinders University

Emeritus Professor David Day Former DVC (R)
STEM Enrichment Academy,  Flinders University

Ms Julie Herraman
STEM Enrichment Academy,  Flinders University


I would like to acknowledge the Federal Government funding received through Women in STEM and Entrepreneurship (WISE) Grant scheme, which made the STEM Enrichment Academy possible.




Impacting lifes

Research found science becomes less challenging for our enrichment program participants, and minds were changed to consider STEM careers.

The impact of the Aurora Science Photo contest is demonstrated by increasing entries, votes, regional reach and prize winners enrolling into STEM Honours. Sample comments from STEM Academy participants:
"I liked the physics and chemistry components; …really inspiring and made me want a STEM job…"
"I learnt that I enjoy these subjects for more than I expected''
"… Definitely interested in Engineering after today's' workshop"

Teachers said:
"… very inspirational…I know the girls were equally impressed and moved"
"I express my gratitude for the wonderful opportunity the Year 9 students of my College experienced... It's so important for girls to attend events such as one you organized."

STEMWBO demonstrated impact through dramatic membership growth, increased female STEM enrolments, testimonials, and cemented university presence through initiatives such as 'Lab Coat Challenge'. There was an increase of 18% in STEM women undergraduate enrolments at Flinders from 2015 to 2016; 28% compared to 2017 enrolments. For postgraduates, a 29% increase from 2015 to 2017.

In recognition, South Australia's daily newspaper selected me in their 125 Ceiling Smashers; I made a list of extra-Ordinary Women in Education & Politics; listed among 30 Inspiring South Australian women nominated for Woman of the Year; also among five nominees for CORIOLE TOP INNOVATOR. I was named The Advertiser Woman of the Year Top Innovator! These Prestigious awards celebrate the pioneering achievements of inspiring and influential South Australian women.


Lessons learned

Our surveys showed year 9 girls are more interested in hands on activities. My surprising insight was that their teachers requested the same- More hands-on activities rather than a lecture. Participating teachers mentioned "Hands -on activity and opportunity to work in the way students would work. And learning something new!!!" is the best aspect. It was wonderful to see parents stepping in for their daughters' schools to ensure they could participate in our STEM Enrichment Academy programs, after reading a press article regarding the STEM Enrichment Academy.

It was surprising to see parents taking time to find me on my LinkedIn and comment "As the parent of a child who has benefitted from your curriculum all I can say is thank you for your passion and dedication. You are an inspiration to young women in STEM and a true role model".

Our initiatives have the potential for use across other institutions, having developed them and proven their effectiveness. Further, industry collaboration has shown a strong appetite to get involved and provide speakers, workshops and funding.

Understanding the most effective methods to interest girls in STEM and encourage them to pursue a career in STEM will enable more efficient enrichment programs to be developed.

From little things big things grow, and for me taking the time to clarify my vision and do the 'small things' thoroughly and effectively lays the foundation for bigger success - in our country and around the world!


What's coming?

STEM: Women Branching Out has an infinite number of applications and locations in which it can expand. We aim to continue building on our initiative to regional SA, enriching more young women and to help them develop the knowledge and skills that will prepare them for a successful future.

This year's Aurora science photo contest Award ceremony celebrated its newest wave of teenage winners awarding a record-breaking 14 prizes worth $4200 to girls and their schools and seeing more than 3,000 votes cast for the People's Choice Awards. Next year we are going to expand this contest to Victoria and New South Wales through Monash and UNSW universities. We are planning to launch this as a Nation-wide contest in 2021 with support of the Physics Education Group of the Australian Institute of Physics.

Further analysis of future results of STEM Enrichment programs will continue to shed light about the effectiveness of different types of enrichment programs, provide the evidence, and show that barriers to young women's participation in STEM.

STEM Enrichment Academy will have a future impact developing STEM capabilities. By analysing student experiences and attitudes this project will provide insight into where the pipeline leaks and why and useful data evidence to support initiatives that meet real needs. We will provide findings that can be useful for a broader longitudinal study on girls in STEM in Australia.

We are brainstorming ideas on developing an International scientific project that connect women scientists from the Middle East to the Western world.



STEM Women Branching Out- Student members


STEM Enrichment Academy Participants- Year 9 girls


STEM Enrichment Academy Participants- Science Teachers


Aurora Photo contest entrants Year 8-12


Investment -STEM Enrichment Academy


STEM Women Branching Out-Leader Lab, Science photo Contest

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