Opinion

It’s never too late to study STEM

Professor Karen Hapgood image

Professor Karen Hapgood

Executive Dean of Science, Engineering and Built Environment at Deakin University

Mature-aged students are often left out of conversations about women in STEM. We need to promote the diverse pathways available to them.

Conversations around women in STEM tend to focus on inspiring girls in high school to study maths and physics, take a STEM university degree and then remain in that field. This pathway is important in boosting Australia’s STEM diversity – but why are mature-aged students so often left out of these talks?

Statistics show that the online postgraduate market is predominantly female, but we’re not tapping into this for STEM, like we do for the MBA. There seems to be a group of women who wish in retrospect they had studied STEM – perhaps they were discouraged at the time – and think it’s now too late.

At Deakin University, the online “cloud campus” is our fastest growing campus, attracting a different cohort of students including in engineering and IT degrees. Almost half of our engineering students are mature-aged, working around the country with jobs, mortgages and kids.

They typically study remotely and part-time. Some of them are even posted overseas on projects for their employer and can still continue their studies uninterrupted.

In our engineering courses, for instance, only about 10 per cent of our undergraduate students are female, but a number of these have truly diverse stories.

Two mature aged students in a laboratory

“…mature-aged students do better on average than school leaver students in their studies”

Photo: Deakin University

One woman trained and worked as a nurse for several years before studying engineering at Deakin.

Another enrolled in chemistry about 20 years ago before getting a chemistry technician job and deferred her degree for a year. She got married, had children, and when her kids left home she enrolled in mechatronics engineering. Now, she has graduated and is working as an engineer.

It’s important that we better promote the many options available to mature-aged students, particularly women, who are interested in pursuing STEM at university without stopping work or having to move.

The fact that an engineering degree can be achieved with online, part-time study and one trip to campus per trimester is not widely known and consistently missing from “women in STEM” discussions.

The trend is not just at Deakin – University of New England has a strong online science degree for example, and USQ and CQU offer online engineering degrees as well.

Each woman had to overcome the barrier of feeling like they would be the only mature age student in the class. This is likely to be true in some universities, but several universities have significant resources and infrastructure to support a cloud education.

And statistically the mature-aged students do better on average than school leaver students in their studies.

In my experience, they are super motivated and generally well organised.

The biggest stumbling block is usually their rusty maths skills, which can be managed with bridging courses if required.

Many mature age students already have a job and need the formal STEM qualification to advance their career. Sometimes their companies are supporting their studies in some way.

However, those seeking to switch into a STEM career commonly report that they find it more difficult to get a job interview than the cohort of fresh school leavers that most large company graduate recruitment programs have in mind.

So what can we do to encourage more mature-aged women to consider studying STEM without putting their lives on hold?

middle aged woman in library

If I could wave a magic wand, I would create a raft of special scholarships for mature-aged students – particularly women – to upgrade or retrain in STEM by studying remotely and part-time around their existing work and family commitments.

I would also launch a massive advertising campaign in unorthodox places like the Australian Women’s Weekly and Jetstar and Qantas magazines – places where we might reach women who are not currently in STEM.

We also need to get industry and government on board, with companies offering internships for high school leaver students and “returnships” for mature-aged women.

This would have two major effects – it would raise awareness of mature age study in STEM as an option for women and employers, and it would signal to the women that they are not alone. Imagine the power of a whole connected cohort across Australia.

So with their broad life experiences and enthusiasm, mature-aged graduates are of enormous value to STEM in Australia. We should try to make this route more prominent to policy makers, employers and prospective students.

Professor Karen Hapgood image
Dr Karen Hapgood

Executive Dean of Science, Engineering and Built Environment at Deakin University

Professor Karen Hapgood is the Executive Dean of Science, Engineering and Built Environment at Deakin University, with a passion for diversity and STEM. She is an industry-focused engineering researcher with expertise in granulation and agglomeration of powders, including five years of pharmaceutical R&D and manufacturing experience.