How a team of flying scientists are increasing regional STEM representation

In March, the Flying Scientists visited Emerald. More than 130 people attended the community event to hear from Queensland Chief Scientist Prof Hugh Possingham, Snake expert Dr Christina Zdenek, Fossil specialist Dr Anita Milroy and Lead scientist in the Parasites in the Wild citizen science project, Saba Sinai.

Flying scientist visits are bringing STEM to even the most remote regions

We’ve always been champions of diversity in STEM, and for students in regional areas, visibility in science, tech, engineering and maths pathways have never been so important. However, with a significant lack of STEM representation in remote communities, encouraging the next-gen to explore science careers can be challenging. Kids can’t be who they can’t see – and there aren’t exactly armies of lab coats hanging out bush.

In an effort to increase scientific representation across the country, the Office of the Queensland Chief Scientist has collaborated with the Wonder of Science to deliver The Flying Scientists Program – a group of travelling early-mid career researchers that accompany Young Science Ambassadors into regional Queensland centres for community STEM awareness events.

“It’s an excellent opportunity for remote kids to engage with scientists,” stresses Lab Manager, Post-doctoral Research Fellow and Flying Scientist Dr Christina N. Zdenek. “The program really helps to bridge this gap regarding STEM!”

The passionate woman in STEM’s most recent trip involved flying into Emerald and engaging with 130 local high school students on her research area – snakes! There were interactive displays of fossils from the area as well as the local Science Squad’s work on the citizen science project.

During their recent visit to Emerald, the Flying Scientists visited Emerald State School and Capella State High School.

“It was a jam-packed two days full of activities, from class visits and school ceremonies, to group bird walks and a community dinner and panel session!” she says.   

So, how do students react to Flying Scientist visits?

According to Christina, they’re totally stoked. “I’ve only had positive responses to my regional visits by kids so far!” she says. “One class was so excited, they found it difficult to hold back all their questions and stories they were so keen to share with us. I got the impression from them that our visit was a welcomed treat. I think they garnered a great deal about science, but even more about being a scientist!”

And yep, all the scientists really do fly

Each trip is carefully curated with a team of STEM professionals skilled in areas relevant to the areas they’re visiting. And yes, they all fly in together on small-scale regional planes.

Christina’s pet snake, Netfix, is famous in Emerald now after flying in with the crew.

“I actually get to fly in with one of my snakes – but not in the cabin!” laughs Christina. “Netflix, my adorable Woma Python pet, was a dreamboat snake for my Flying Scientist visit to Emerald. Always so well behaved and sweet.”

So, why are these Flying Scientist trips so important?

With less exposure to diverse STEM pathways, it’s often hard for regional students to access innovation and industry-connected resources. But with STEM skills so transferable, exposing them to science, tech, engineering and maths opportunities will increase their employability in not just STEM-related industries – but literally everywhere.

“And don’t forget – the most rigorous way to understand and interrogate the world around us is science,” says Christina. “Without it, we’re left with biased opinions, fake news, and corruption. It shines a light for us, keeping us safe and smart!”

Hanging out with snakes is also pretty cool too.

Keen to know more about the Flying Scientist program? Head here.

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Cassie Steel

Author: Cassie Steel

As Refraction’s digital editor, Cassie Steel spends her days researching robots and stalking famous scientists on Twitter.

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