From designing 3D print models to studying NASA satellite data, around 1,000 Grade 9 girls took to hands-on sessions during the Explore STEM conference at Mount Royal University, SAIT and the University of Calgary.

For the past 20 years, Explore STEM’s goal has been to inspire girls to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). The interactive conference covers interests in areas such as multimedia, computer programming, geomatics, and more.

“In 1999 when we started this event, post-secondary institutions had way less female students. Now, there are often more female than male students, but fewer females pursue STEM careers,” says Pamini Thangarajah, a mathematics associate professor at Mount Royal University. 

For 20 years, Explore STEM has focussed on motivating girls to explore potential careers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). Video produced by Casey Richardson.

Thangarajah continues to see these trends in the engineering courses she teaches, where a class of 100 has only three or four female students.

With projected labour shortages in Alberta’s STEM careers and women making up only 23 per cent of workers in these fields, Thangarajah says it’s important to “increase their awareness, excitement and confidence they can do this.”

“People tend to say math [is] for boys … but math can be done by anyone. I’m an example.”

Being a woman and studying mathematics in Sri Lanka presented difficulties for Thangarajah, but through Explore STEM she encourages girls to work hard and overcome the challenges they face.

Sarah Diaz (left) would like to pursue a career in mathematics, Lee Wills (middle) is interested in astrology and Abbi Hoare (right) may pursue environmentalism. Photo by Andrea Wong.

The conference targets girls in Grade 9 who are at a critical career decision-making year. Explore STEM works to encourage girls to continue taking science and math classes through high school, which can impact their future career decisions after graduating.

Through the years, Thangarajah says they’ve received several updates from past participants inspired by the conference to pursue careers in STEM. Gabrielle Dickson, who facilitated the Design Thinking + Doing session, recalls her own experience with Explore STEM.

“When I was in Grade 9 I actually attended this conference, and I took the design session as well, and it was really influential and furthered decisions about education,” says Dickson, now a fourth-year Information and Design student at Mount Royal University.

Grade 9 students had opportunities to attend interactive sessions at Mount Royal University’s Riddell Library and Learning Centre such as 3D printing, information design, and computer programming. Photo by Andrea Wong.

More stories like Dickson’s will continue as over 75 per cent of participants from 2017 indicated an interest in pursuing a career related to STEM.

“It’s important to start with girls at this age because they’re going to start self-selecting about whether they’re good at [something] or not,” says Dickson. “So I think it’s really good to get them at this age where they’re still more open to everything and show them that you can be good at this if you try.”

Editor: Ian Tennant |