How this young STEM advocate sees the future

By Our Reporter
Aayushi Khillan // Pic supplied

With her recent appointment to the National Youth Advisory Group on promotion of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM), Aayushi Khillan, 22, is filled with enthusiasm. Given that women make up only 36 per cent of enrolments in university STEM courses and just 16 per cent of enrolments in vocational STEM courses, Khillan hopes to contribute to the efforts towards encouraging more women to pursue STEM education and careers, and to address the gender gap in the field. She talks to The Indian Sun on her new appointment and the responsibilities that come with it.

Firstly, congratulations one being one of the eight successful candidates. Talk us through the process of selection to the National Youth STEM Advisory Board.

The selection process involved a nationally open application – over 1000 young people from across Australia applied. They looked for skills and expertise in the STEM field and unique personal experiences.

The group will work on national exhibitions, run by Questacon, that are related STEM and career pathways. The group will also help to support the inclusion of young people from diverse and underrepresented backgrounds in STEM. The group will advise the Department of Industry, Science and Resources (DISR) on the ethical and social concerns young people have about science and technology. They will help the department understand how they can inspire the next generation of young people in STEM, and how they can redesign programs to reflect young people’s perspectives.

What do you hope to accomplish as a member of the Youth Advisory Board?

This means a great deal to me! As a young multicultural woman in STEM, I am very well aware of the lack of diversity. Women only represent 25 per cent of the STEM cohorts in university and by the age of nine women are deterred from a career in STEM. Not to mention that women in STEM are still underpaid compared to their male counterparts! This needs to change.

Aayushi Khillan at the inauguration of the Youth Advisory Board in Canberra // Pic supplied

Some changes I would like to see include:

  • More diversity in STEM representation. This includes more women promoted and encouraged into STEM. Also certain ethnic backgrounds e.g. Indigenous Australians who currently only make up 0.1 per cent of the STEM population.
  • More promotion of diverse STEM pathways and fields. You do not need a degree to work in a STEM workforce!! There are many alternate pathways into a life in STEM. For example, a hospital administrator is still working in a STEM environment and has stem knowledge.
  • More promotion of STEM within primary school teaching. If children decide early on whether STEM is a field for them, we need to train primary school teachers to deliver engaging science, maths and technology content. This is not as heavily pushed or encouraged as it should be. Most primary school teachers are not aspiring scientists or interested in those subjects enough to teach it with the passion required to inspire a next generation of STEM students.
  • Incorporating the STEM thinking process (critical analysis, scientific analysis, problem solving skills) into other subjects. What is similar about all STEM subjects is their scientific exploration of the world. But you don’t need a degree in biology to do that. Even as a chef, there is a science to cooking. So we should encourage people to grasp the STEM way of thinking and encourage teachers to incorporate that into any subject they teach.
  • We need more STEM opportunities and industries in Australia. There isn’t enough out there yet encouraging young creative minds to stay within Australia. Hence, we lose a lot of talent to overseas tech-booming countries.
What sparked your interest in STEM?

I have had a very curious mind since childhood. Was always interested in science subjects. Science class was one of my favourite classes. When I grew up, I was fascinated by chemistry and biology.

Not to mention, having family and a woman, my mother, in that field. I always took her as a role model and was always encouraged to pursue my dream of a career in STEM.

But it is important to note that this is not the reality for most children. They are not encouraged by family, usually discouraged and this does not allow them to spark an interest in STEM.

How do you plan to use your position on the board to advocate for greater representation and inclusivity in STEM fields?

Regular meetings with the DISR and Questacon. We aim to implement new policies with both that can be incorporated into future projects/initiatives. This includes more policies/advocacy around promotion of gender diversity and ethnic diversity in STEM fields.

We are also working closely with Questacon to generate national exhibitions that represent current STEM issues that young people are passionate about. We hope this promotes younger people to join STEM.

Pic supplied
How do you stay motivated and engaged in your own STEM studies and projects?

I love everything about it. It is not an effort for me because it is something I am wholeheartedly passionate about.

But also making time for myself and family is very key – you need a good balance in life.

What do you think are the most important skills for success in STEM careers, and how have you worked to develop those skills?

Being curious and having a curious mind. STEM careers all have one thing in common – that is the scientific curiosity. I think we need to encourage our children to question things such as why the sky is blue or why the grass is green. When I was younger, I used to do a lot of fun and creative activities. I would take out recipes and cook by myself, do a lot of science projects and arts and crafts activities, read lots of books. I was a very curious person from an early age.

The next thing you need is persistence and determination. A lot of STEM fields involve work at the forefront of latest scientific research. You are entering the uncharted territory of the world where you are exploring undiscovered concepts, undiscovered programs. This requires you to be persistent, to be okay with failure, learn how to learn from your mistakes and pick yourself back up.

What do you see as the future of STEM fields?

STEM fields will be diverse, will be equal and inclusive. STEM fields will be broader than what they currently appear in people’s minds. It is not just your doctors or your engineers. There are a lot of possibilities. Most importantly, STEM fields will be more achievable for people. They will reach out their hand and take up STEM opportunities.

We have a long way to go in Australia but certainly it is most important for us as a multicultural nation to get this right. We also lose a lot of our STEM talent to overseas countries, so we need to build that STEM workforce and strengthen it, so people feel comfortable with the opportunities for STEM within our nation!

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