STEM Subject Added to Curriculum

Zahra Khorami is a budding biomedical engineer who has no hesitation in naming the source of her scientific curiosity — her mother Rezia's home cooking.

It might sound weird but that sort of outside-the-box thinking is exactly what the federal government is looking for as it pushes for greater gender, cultural and economic diversity in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

"Those things like that, I see it in her. Even though she hasn't been to school — she hasn't studied or anything — she does experiment. I learn from her pretty much every day," Ms Khorami said of her mother.

When Ms Khorami was a year old, her family fled their home in Afghanistan to escape the Taliban. Six years passed before she was reunited with her father.

"There were times I cried. I would see a child with a dad buying them ice cream [and] I cried," Ms Khorami said.

"Then, when I had a chat to my dad, he said, 'You are crying for the ice cream?'. I said, 'No, I'm not, I'm not crying for the ice cream. I'm crying for people that don't have their dad around'."

Now living in Chester Hill, in Sydney's west, she's grateful for her new life and opportunities in Australia, but there were challenges here, too.

Ms Khorami's local all-girls high school had never run a physics class before.

Undeterred by the idea that physics wasn't for girls, Ms Khorami convinced enough of her friends to take the class that the school added it to the curriculum.

"I made the whole seven of my friends to run the class, so I can keep doing it in my year 11 and 12," she said.

Today, Ms Khorami is tutoring at the University of Technology Sydney, as well as teaching classes and working at Cochlear — a medical device company that makes bio-medical implants that help people with profound hearing difficulties.

Her face lights up as she speaks about her hopes and dreams for the future.

"So far, in just a few decades it has helped over a half-a-million individuals to be able to hear. I mean, kids who are born deaf," she said.

"I have been passionate to be part of Cochlear because if I can make even a tiny contribution, I want to be a part of it."

Twenty cadetships for 150 students

There have been two national data reports by the STEM Equity Monitor which found the percentage of female workers was just 18 in 2016 and 28 in 2020.

At the same time, successful female role models are seen by Science and Technology Australia as vital to "smash imposter syndrome", with the organisation launching a Superstars of STEM initiative to show the work of trailblazing women.

With an increasing body of scientific evidence showing that having a broader range of perspectives leads to more breakthroughs, governments around the world are working on plans to get more women into the lab.

Australia, too, is racing to boost its representation of women in STEM. It has a 10-year plan to secure the future of STEM by achieving gender and cultural equity.

In the federal budget, the government announced $47.9 million in funding to improve the numbers of women in STEM.

Paid internships and strong female role models are key to hitting the twin goals of equity and prosperity, but COVID-19 restrictions mean just a fraction of the current crop of graduates are getting a foot in the door.

Ms Khorami was able to get her start at Cochlear through a paid internship run by the independent children's charity, the Smith Family.

John Gelligan from the Smith Family said other students, who experience financial hardship, have not been as lucky.

"Last year, we had 150 young people apply for cadetships. We could only fill 20 places," Mr Gelligan said.

He said without connections, there may not be another chance for students like Ms Khorami to get a foot in the door.

"Young people like Zahra are fantastic, but if they send their CV directly to an employer, chances are they won't get an interview. What a CV doesn't capture is the young person's motivation, their resilience," Mr Gelligan said.

Ms Khorami is proof of the incredible results that can flow from just a little bit of help.

Today, she can laugh at the idea that physics isn't for girls.

"It gave me a vision of what I want to achieve or what I want to work towards," she said.

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