OPINION

Letter writing could launch STEM careers

I have a pen pal! This is an exciting development in my life. After all, I haven't had a pen pal since I was about 12 years old.

Coincidentally, my pen pal IS a 12-year-old - and she was paired with me through a program called Letters to a Pre-scientist.

Letters to a Pre-scientist is a program that connects school students from low-income/high-poverty schools with STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) professionals all around the world. As they write to each other, the students gain many benefits. They get to learn more about science and about different careers, they improve their reading, writing and communication skills, and gain a broader understanding of the world and different cultures.

And the STEM professionals? They get the joy of sharing their knowledge and being a role model for a child.

The reason that I put my hand up to be a pen pal is a desire to see more kids from diverse backgrounds having an interest in STEM.

STEM professions have long been dominated by those of higher socioeconomic status. In academia and in science, people like me - first generation academics from working class families - are a bit of an anomaly. Students from disadvantaged backgrounds are very much underrepresented in science. Fewer students from these backgrounds choose science subjects in high school, and those that go on to study at university often struggle as their early education has left them ill-prepared. That is, if they can afford to go to university at all. We like to think that, in science, it is only the quality of people's work that matters.

But in reality, background and socioeconomic status matter a lot.

The Letters to Pre-scientist program focuses on schools where 60 per cent or more of students are from low-income families.

It provides a unique opportunity for these students to engage with real people who are working in scientific fields - something that would not generally happen in their normal schooling. This exposure can spark interest, but even better, allow these students to see potential futures for themselves.

My pen pal isn't quite sold on a career in science yet. She's more interested in fashion and arts. And that's totally fine - I'm not trying to convert her.

What I hope that she gets from our interactions is the idea that she can dream big and be successful, whatever career she chooses (although it would be cool if it was STEM!).

Dr Mary McMillan is a lecturer at the School of Science and Technology, University of New England