“School outreach makes a difference because it can inspire change at classroom level, and that is where the greatest impression can be made.”
When Erhart was a young student making subject choices that would shape his future career, he found the whole process very discouraging. “I remember how hard it was when I was at school thinking about what job I might want to do, and what subjects to focus on to make careers possible. I didn’t really know what different jobs there actually were, and there were practically no career insights provided.” Fast forward to today and Erhart holds a mining engineering degree from University of Queensland, works for Origin Energy as a Petroleum Engineer, and is a passionate volunteer with the EWB Australia’s School Outreach program. “I got involved because I like learning and teaching. When I saw the email circulating from Origin Foundation for volunteers for EWB’s school outreach program, I thought it would be a good opportunity to give something back. This is one way of being able to answer a kid’s questions about the built sciences, and hopefully show that engineering isn’t all about paperwork.”
The EWB school outreach program promotes Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics (STEM) subjects to school children, and is led by inspiring industry role models such as Erhart. The fun active program introduces kids to real world humanitarian challenges, such as clean water supply, and helps them use scientific principles to solve the problem. And to do this the program depends on skilled volunteers like Erhart and the support of organisations such as Origin Energy, especially as many of the schools EWB focusses on are in regional, rural and remote parts of Australia, areas under-represented at the higher education level across all engineering disciplines.
“Diversity within the engineering sector is stagnant, uptake of STEM subjects is decreasing, and there are significant inequities in the representation of women and Indigenous people in STEM careers.” explains Emilie Nachtigalle, who runs EWB School Outreach. “In addition, there is also a big gap in representation from rural and remote areas. Nonetheless, greater diversity in those taking up engineering is crucial for increased innovation and a stronger STEM sector in Australia. Our program helps to tackle this by inspiring school kids with cool real-world science challenges and great role models.”
Erhart along with several of his Origin Energy colleagues has volunteered in many schools, and remarks that one of the most memorable was probably his first EWB School Outreach session in Toowoomba, Queensland. The school kids had to design a pontoon as water transport for small island-based developing nations, but the design had to work even with tough time, funding and resource constraints. The students built small models of their designs and the winning vessel would be the one that could hold the greatest weight in marbles.
“Of course when the grade 7 students split up it was into boys’ groups and girls’ groups.” He smiles. “I was advising one of the two girls’ groups, and as it turned out the two girls’ groups were first and second winners by a long way! The way the boys and girls went through the process was very interesting. It was really thought provoking to watch the dynamic as the different groups approached the challenge in very different ways. It makes you realise that groups of school kids are no different in some ways to groups of people in the workplace.”
EWB has been delivering school outreach across Australia for over 10 years, and in 2016 alone reached 13,000 students of whom 12% identify as Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander. By successfully leveraging a passionate volunteer base from both industry and education, students meet diverse role models studying for and working in STEM careers. Emilie emphasises that the program has wide reaching benefits. “This program has impact not only on school students, but on the volunteers themselves: creating more socially conscious and community focused professionals, as well as developing leadership and presentation skills.”
Erhart agrees, “Listening to the kids responses to the questions asked opens your eyes to how the wider community sees the engineering and science disciplines. So it isn’t just about the student’s technical achievements in the outreach session, it’s also about educating and explaining why engineering and science are required.”
With nothing like the School Outreach program to inspire or inform him when he was at school, Erhart believes something positive comes out of every outreach session. “It feels really good to see kids work together to finish their challenge and enjoy the process. Trying to help them think about a problem differently, and work through their challenges or failure points is really rewarding. Especially when you see it “click” with them!”
The Origin Foundation supports EWB Australia through funding, and with GiveTime volunteering opportunities for Origin Energy staff.