Inspiring the next generation

Angelique Notaras
6 min read

Actively promoting STEM in schools and encouraging more girls to consider engineering as a career are at the heart of a new initiative by Laing O’Rourke.

STEM industries are vital to Australia’s economic growth, but two persistent problems stand in the way of progress. The first is that creativity – a vital skill within science, technology, engineering and mathematics industries – is generally excluded from the STEM curriculum.

The second is that women are significantly under represented in STEM education. Laing O’Rourke aims to tackle both of these problems – and address Australia’s engineering skills shortage in the process.

The industry leader partnered with its 100 Mount Street client, DEXUS Property, and project delivery partners, RLB and Savills, on a pilot program to immerse a group of high school students from local girls secondary school, Monte Sant’ Angelo Mercy College, into the construction and engineering industry.

The pilot program, Inspiring STEM+, kicked off with a module that introduced students to the reality of a construction site and the innovative technologies that shape 21st century buildings. Each of the program’s modules are aligned with the construction of Laing O’Rourke’s 100 Mount Street project, a new world class high-rise commercial tower that will set a new standard for office space in North Sydney.

The modules are devised and rolled out by Austin Fraser-Hills, a construction management graduate and Victor Tay, a young site engineer. Angelique Nakousis, Laing O’Rourke’s Commercial Manager on the project and Inspiring STEM+ Project Sponsor, explains the program was initiated by a challenge from the company’s Managing Director, Cathal O’Rourke. “One Friday afternoon, he asked a group of graduates at 100 Mount Street, ‘How can we inspire the next generation into engineering and construction?’.

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"Laing O’Rourke is committed to doing what it can to improve the gender balance in construction and engineering, and what better motivation to do this than the Managing Director challenging our young talent to play their part in helping to shape the future.”

Angelique Notaras Commercial Manager

Notaras explains that the program aims to challenge the perceptions of careers in construction and engineering while inspiring schoolgirls to follow the path. The program comes at a crucial time. A recent report from PwC shows that STEM education is key to Australia’s future growth and that moving just one per cent of the workforce into STEM roles would add $57.4 billion to GDP.

However, the number of young Australians engaging with STEM subjects in secondary school is declining. Girls continue to be significantly unrepresented at all levels of STEM education, making up just 16 per cent of those with STEM qualifications. Mathematical ability does not explain the gender selection of STEM subjects. Lack of female industry role models, gender stereotypes and the ways in which STEM subjects are made accessible to girls continue to be the greatest obstacles. There is also limited knowledge of the real skills required for a STEM career.

“We consider this to be a ‘STEAM’ program with the ‘A’ representing the ‘arts’,” explains Notaras. “STEAM is the new STEM in many ways because it highlights the importance of creativity If you ask a girl if she wants to be an engineer, that may not sound particularly exciting. But if you ask her if she wants to inspire innovation and creativity, that might lead to a completely different answer.”

Tom Lee, Director Innovation and Technology at Monte Sant’ Angelo Mercy College, says the program represented an immersive opportunity for students. “The girls don’t know what they don’t know and providing rich collaborative opportunities with inspiring industry leaders are the very experiences that enable our girls to be passionate and ambitious about pursuing a career in the construction and engineering industry,” he explains.

One of those young women is Natalia Toh, a Year 10 student at Monte with a keen interest in design. “When the email asked students if they wanted to join the first module, I was one of the first to sign up,” she says. “It has opened me up to a whole bunch of opportunities that I can choose to pursue in the future. I’d love to look more into the research and development parts of the industry, as well as the actual design of a building.”

Toh says a highlight of the program was the opportunity for hands-on experiences with virtual reality (VR) technologies. “We got to see how they use VR to build things more efficiently and how they use a Jump Form to build cement upwards. I don’t have my career completely planned out, but now I’ve been challenged to look into something that I wouldn’t have considered before.”

A focus on the future Upcoming modules in the two-year pilot program include ‘Construction in Two Digital Ages’ and ‘Sustainability in Construction’. Laing O’Rourke is also engaging with the students throughout the year via Google Classroom.

“We’ve just sent out a challenge to the students to take a photo ‘selfie’ of the most sustainable building and give reasons why,” says Notaras. “The winner gets a one-on-one session with one of our inspiring leaders.” Engagement with the program will continue throughout the students’ tertiary studies and a graduate position will also be offered.

As the program develops, Laing O’Rourke plans to partner with a university to further connect students with the many career opportunities in engineering and construction. “STEM careers require technical skills but they’re really about problem solving,” adds Notaras. “Soft skills are so important. You can be great with your textbooks, but how do you communicate and do you have what it takes to be a leader? We want to challenge and change perceptions.”