Words by Natalie O'Driscoll
Photos by Simone Gorman-Clark
It’s a pretty well known fact that gender inequalities exist in the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM). Women are a necessary but criminally underutilised force for advancement in these areas, so when we meet women forging their way through the field, we just have to get to know them a little better.
This edition, we chat to award-winning primary and STEM teacher Megan Hayes.
Megan Hayes sparkles. Not in a lame, Twilight-ish way, but in the sense that I could feel the energy crackling around her when she walked into the room for our interview. Blue eyes twinkling and wearing the fluffiest pink jumper I’ve ever seen, Megan practically flies into the café, gives me a big hug (that I don’t want to let go of – that jumper was really soft) and begins chatting away excitedly.
“I just got an email from the PM prize guys,” she tells me, all lit up. “This is the first year they’re going to be able to have the awards in person in Canberra because the last two years with Covid they haven’t been able to do it!”
What she is referring to is the Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science, and specifically the prize for Excellence in Science Teaching in Primary Schools, of which Megan was the 2021 recipient. This honour, along with the cool $50,000 that came with it, was presented remotely thanks to Covid, and now Megan is getting the chance to attend this year’s awards and receive some in-person recognition.
So just why was she a deserving winner? The answer is manifold.
Megan’s goal is to build the connection between science and its application in the real world for her students. Constantly innovating, she inspires students to think critically, take risks and become agents of change for the future.
The STEM program at the primary school where she has taught for 23 years, Mudgeeraba Creek State School, was established by Megan at the behest of school principal Deirdre von Guilleaume.
“[Deirdre] has shaped the school to what it is today,” says Megan. “She’s the one who trusted me with the vision to create a STEM science program that was at the forefront and was ongoing.”
In the program, Megan focusses on real world skills for the kids.
“We’re really starting to engage in deep learning,” she explains.
“It’s more than those 21st century skills like problem solving, critical thinking, collaboration. Deep learning takes it further and looks at how students will interact in the future socially; Empathy and social connections as well, which is right up my alley because that’s what I’ve been doing the last seven years with my students. Building that child that can work differently.
“The new catch phrase is ‘student agency’: Giving students more ownership of their learning. So I think my success has come from the fact that I’ve started enquiry learning in very small ways, I haven’t just jumped in and given students control the very start, it’s been a gradual release of responsibility.
“So now when the students come to my lessons I know how they work, they know how I work, they know it’s a safe zone, they know they’re able to make mistakes and that’s really important for kids to know that.”
Megan is clearly passionate about her work, and the children. She exudes the sense of confidence about her subject that only comes from years and years of delving deep, spending countless hours (of her own time no doubt) in the pursuit of excellence and continuous improvement.
Cheerful and composed, pink and fluffy, assured and intelligent, she’s like a Bizarro World version of Dolores Umbridge, an educator using her powers for good instead of evil.
“In my classroom, we have a big sign that says FAIL – this stands for ‘First Attempt At Learning’,” she explains.
“It’s not my goal to set students up to fail, but I want to show them that the first attempt isn’t always a success. I encourage them to make mistakes. This is often when they begin to collaborate with their peers to work together in a problem-solving manner, and this is when the best learning takes place.”
So just what does a day in Megan’s STEM class look like?
“I use a lot of storybook STEM with Year One, for instance. We share a story ‘What Do You Do With An Idea?’ The story teaches the children that ideas can be anything and not to be afraid of your ideas and that with one idea you can change the world.
“I might give one class a paper plate or a paper cup or a cardboard tube and they have to work like an engineer and do a design and plan it out.
“By incorporating what they’re learning with their other teachers we can do things like investigate sound, how we make sound, they can design a musical instrument that can be played in lots of different ways.
“We look at lots of different materials and what they’re going to do to fix it if something doesn’t work. And that it’s okay if something doesn’t work right away!
“When they first come in they’re asking ‘can I have some sticky tape or can you cut this for me please or how am I going to do that’ and by the end of they know exactly what they’re doing.”
By Year Six the kids take all those cumulative skills and use them to on projects like trying to solve a range of issues in nearby developing countries. Including making a working water filter, as one of her classes recently did.
“STEM isn’t a subject,” Megan says earnestly. “It is a way of thinking and knowing and it goes across all the areas of student learning.
“What I’m finding is students are taking those skills in to their classrooms, and teachers are seeing a change. Teachers are adopting some of those fundamentals in all areas. Instead of telling them what to do, they’re giving them agency. A great expression is ‘They’re not the font at the front they’re the guide at the side’.”
According to Megan, many families seek enrolment at Mudgeeraba Creek State School because of the outstanding reputation of the STEM program at the school. It has won the Griffith University Gold Coast Science competition for the last ten years, and the state competition for the last seven.
But it’s the whole raft of experiences and not just the accolades that keep Megan motivated and excited.
“The joy I get is in seeing the change in the mindset of the children, seeing themselves as scientists and engineers.
“I got to go to Japan in 2016 with the sciences teachers, and I saw young children using scientific glassware and using scientific terminology. We’ve got to stop dumbing things down for them.
“I also get a lot of joy out of watching them find their passion. I’ve got students that come back and take science in high school because of their experiences at Mudgeeraba Creek. We also have four of our past students at the Queensland Academy of Health Science.”
As we all know, representation is important. The work of Megan and other STEM educators like her is critical in not just turning out a generation of capable thinkers and doers, but is also necessary when it comes to encouraging more young women to get into STEM, despite it being a traditionally male-dominated field.
And it’s not in the classroom either, with Megan running conferences and events specifically for girls and women in STEM.
“The barriers are being cut down in terms of mindset,” says Megan.
“The more girls see female inspiring role models, the more they chase it. And it’s becoming part of our vernacular now. What I want to do is continue inspiring the female students but also our male students into those careers and letting them know there’s more out there than what it might seem like in our small community.”