When you’re young it’s easy to feel like the adults are running the show, but there are a stack of emerging leaders proving that age doesn’t matter when it comes to making a positive impact on our planet. And the coolest thing about it? They’re all using their STEM skills!
Here, we give props to some of our favourite underage game-changers, and show you how to kick off a similar career pathway (if changing the world is your thing).
1. Alexander Deans invented a game-changing navigation device from his bedroom
While most 12-year-olds are busy getting their head around algebra and basic physics, Alexander Deans was teaching himself complex code and inventing life-changing tech.
In 2009, while in grade 7, the now 22-year-old created a handheld navigation device called the iAid after assisting a blind woman cross the street and realising there was nothing to help her walk independently. Alexander equipped the iAid with a GPS and compass to allow it to successfully detect obstacles – and it has since become a well-received innovation widely used today.
These days Alexander describes himself as a professional inventor and is a successful public speaker, regularly giving talks on the importance of creativity in education.
Keen to go down Alexander’s path? A computer science degree is the obvious fit, but keep your creativity flowing with exciting electives and extra-curricular projects.
2. Greta Thunberg is urging world leaders to listen to science
One of the most-talked about young people at the moment is Swedish student and environmental activist Greta Thunberg. Last year her global campaign ‘School Strike 4 Climate’ started humbly outside Swedish parliament, where she rocked up with a DIY sign to protest stronger political action on global warming. After a bunch of copy-cat strikes in her home country it’s now a global movement, with the latest round of protests boasting 4,500 different march locations in 150 participating countries.
Off the back of the marches Greta addressed the United Nations Climate Change Conference accusing world leaders of ignoring the science behind the climate crisis. “We are in the beginning of a mass extinction and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of economic growth – how dare you!” she said.
Keen to go down Greta’s path? At only 16 years old we are yet to see what Greta will do with her career, although we’re guessing that environmental activism will be a huge part of her future. If you’re keen to fight global warming as a job – as an agricultural scientist, renewable energy engineer or climatologist – look into a Bachelor of Science (majoring in geoscience) or suss out a straight-up Bachelor of Environmental Science degree.
3. Macinley Butson is using her STEM skills to help cancer patients
Thanks to her problem-solving smarts, eye for innovation and desire to make a difference, Macinley Butson has killed it in her fair share of high school STEM comps. She’s placed first in the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (2017), taken home NSW Young Australian of the Year (2018), and most recently aced the BHP Foundation Science and Engineering Awards (2019) where she entered a particularly game-changing innovation – a SMART system which works to reduce excess dosage of radiotherapy delivered to the body during cancer treatment.
“My father works in the field and has described what cancer patients had to go through,” Macinley says of the motivation behind her project. “I decided it wasn’t fair they would be subject to side-effect radiation which can cause skin burning as well as the chance of another cancer forming, so I decided to dedicate my time to finding a solution.”
Even though the comp is over, Macinley hopes to keep working on the SMART system and continue to tackle the world’s biggest social, health, economic and environmental problems one STEM comp at a time.
Keen to go down Mcinley’s path? If you’re into game-changing innovation but not sure what to do, keep your options open and try a general double science/arts degree.
4. Malala is fighting for all girls to receive an education
Malala Yousafzai is a young Pakistani activist, who as teenager spoke out publicly against the prohibition of education for girls enforced by the Taliban. After surviving an assassination attempt on her way home from school she gained worldwide media attention, which she used as a global platform to continue the fight for global education rights. Among the list of ‘awesome stuff she’s done’ is establishing The Malala Fund, discussing girls education rights with former President Barack Obama, winning the Nobel Peace Prize and opening a girls school for Syrian War refugees in Lebanon. Oh, and she’s only 22.
Although she’s not exactly a STEM scholar, Malala’s passion for educating everyone – especially young girls – is so key to making sure our future leaders are a true, representation of our diverse society. Our push for encouraging more girls into STEM reflects this vision too – the more women in STEM, the more that our tech will represent and speak to us.
Keen to go down Malala’s path? If STEM + education is your thing there are a bunch of ways to become a tertiary educator in science, engineering, technology and maths. Check out undergraduate honours degrees in education (majoring in a STEM field) and packaged bachelor of teaching/bachelor of science programs.
5. Preethika Mathan sees the potential for tech to improve the lives of people living with disabilities
Preethika Mathan isn’t your average teenager. Winner of last year’s UNSW Bragg prize – a comp celebrating excellence in Australian science writing – Preethika won over the judges hearts and minds with her entry i-Care. In her essay she speaks of technology’s ability to improve the lives of people living with disabilities, going on to suggest practical ways in which it can be made more affordable and accessible to those who need it most.
With a brother on the autism spectrum, the topic is deeply personal for Preethika who one day hopes to carve out a career in the tech therapy space.
Keen to go down Preethika’s path? If you’re into thinking up new technologies like Preethika, consider degrees in engineering, computer science and information technology. Soft, transferable skills such as problem-solving smarts, team-work and creativity are just as key as the specialised tech skill-set you’ll pick up in class.
Read about more young people doing exciting things in STEM here.
Author: Cassie Steel
As Refraction’s digital assistant, Cassie Steel spends her days researching robots and stalking famous scientists on Twitter.