WOMEN AND BLUE SKY THINK­ING

Gra­tu­itous pic­tures of women fly­ing drones sparked a new move­ment to in­ter­est girls in science. VHAIRI MACK­IN­TOSH finds out how ‘She Flies’ got off the ground.

Cosmos - - Contents - VHAIRI MACK­IN­TOSH is an earth sci­en­tist and writer based in Mel­bourne.

VHAIRI MACK­IN­TOSH re­veals how a Google search led to a drone school for girls.

ABOUT A YEAR AGO, I didn’t know much about drones. Then, sud­denly, they were ev­ery­where.

At my univer­sity, sem­i­nar af­ter sem­i­nar fo­cused on the cut­ting-edge re­search be­ing car­ried out us­ing them. In the news, there was a story about a man who was fined $9000 for fly­ing his drone to pick up a sausage from Bun­nings. There were also in­spir­ing reports about drones be­ing used for hu­man­i­tar­ian aid, and to mon­i­tor sharks at pop­u­lar Aus­tralian beaches.

Now, I am one of the 21 She Flies in­struc­tors around Aus­tralia who are us­ing drones to in­crease fe­male par­tic­i­pa­tion and confidence in STEM (science, tech­nol­ogy, en­gi­neer­ing and math­e­mat­ics). We teach school stu­dents how to safely fly the ma­chines, code them for au­to­mated flights and solve real-life geospa­tial-science prob­lems.

The pro­gram is not gen­der-ex­clu­sive and is open to all stu­dents – or “pi­lots” as we like to call them. How­ever, She Flies not only trains the next gen­er­a­tion how to use this sig­nif­i­cant, emerg­ing tech­nol­ogy, but also pro­motes gen­der equal­ity in STEM. We aim to break down the stereo­types and un­con­scious bi­ases that still, un­for­tu­nately, ex­ist.

But how did drone ed­u­ca­tion and gen­der equal­ity come to­gether in the first place?

The story of She Flies be­gan in 2016 when co- founders Karen Joyce and Cather­ine Ball started chat­ting at the Un­manned Air­craft Sys­tems for Re­mote Sens­ing Ap­pli­ca­tions Con­fer­ence in Bris­bane.

Later that year, as part of Na­tional Science Week, Joyce vis­ited sev­eral schools in Queens­land to dis­cuss her work us­ing drones to map and mon­i­tor the Great Bar­rier Reef.

“While I was vis­it­ing pri­mary schools, they were heaps of fun. The girls and boys would ask me all sorts of ques­tions about the drones – what their names were, how ex­pen­sive they are, how you could crash them,” Joyce says. “And then when I ran the same event at high schools, I only had boys turn up.”

This marked de­cline in girls’ at­ten­dance at the high school talks puz­zled her, so she started speak­ing to her col­leagues at James Cook Univer­sity in Townsville about it. She found a wealth of ev­i­dence sug­gest­ing that young girls of­ten lose confidence dur­ing late pri­mary to early high school – the time when ad­vanced tech­nolo­gies, such as drones, are in­tro­duced.

“You have this is­sue where you have boys who are re­ally keen, which is fab­u­lous, but the girls are hold­ing back and los­ing confidence and then they’re go­ing to miss the boat,” Joyce ex­plains.

At around the same time, Joyce re­ceived a phone call from Ball, ask­ing her to google ‘drones for girls’ and

look at the images. “We sat in si­lence for a mo­ment or two while we looked at all the bikini mod­els,” re­mem­bers Joyce. Con­versely, when the pair googled ‘drones for boys’, the nar­ra­tive il­lus­trated all the amaz­ing ap­pli­ca­tions of ma­chines – the kinds of uses that, as it hap­pens, both Joyce and Ball were very fa­mil­iar with in their own work as drone pi­lots.

With the orig­i­nal mis­sion of chang­ing the Google Images nar­ra­tive for girls, Joyce and Ball started con­tact­ing all the fe­male pi­lots they knew, ask­ing for photos of them at work. It was this search that led them to dis­cover that less than 1% of drone op­er­a­tors in Aus­tralia are fe­male.

For Joyce and Ball, what started as a mis­sion to col­lect pho­to­graphic ev­i­dence of women work­ing in the field soon turned into a mis­sion to change the shock­ing re­al­ity of fe­male un­der­rep­re­sen­ta­tion in the drone in­dus­try – and, by ex­ten­sion, STEM as a whole. If Joyce and Ball wanted more photos of women work­ing with drones, they needed to en­cour­age more women to work with drones and in STEM in the first place.

So they took Ball’s busi­ness in­no­va­tion experience, Joyce’s life­time of teach­ing and coach­ing, their shared passion for science, tech­nol­ogy and drones, and cre­ated She Flies with the help of some govern­ment fund­ing.

Since its launch in 2017, the or­gan­i­sa­tion has con­ducted over 100 events, re­cruited 21 in­struc­tors from around Aus­tralia, en­gaged 2,235 stu­dents – 80% of whom are girls – and trained 355 teach­ers. The pro­gram has al­ready ex­panded in­ter­na­tion­ally into the US.

Given that she is a great ex­am­ple of some­one who has suc­cess­fully com­bined all her pas­sions into what she does for a liv­ing, I asked Joyce what ad­vice she has for young peo­ple.

“Find the thing that you love and that you’re good at,” she says. “The fact that you love it is go­ing to make you even bet­ter at it, which is go­ing to lead to suc­cess.”

Al­though she was in­ter­ested in science and “most things” at school, Joyce ex­plains that she didn’t know then what she wanted to be when she left.

“I didn’t know that what I am now was a thing,” she says. “The re­al­ity is I ac­tu­ally still don’t know what I want to be. You don’t know what will be there in 10 years. It could be even cooler than what I do now.”

I was so in­spired by Joyce and Ball’s story and their mis­sion to em­power the next fe­male gen­er­a­tion that when they ad­ver­tised for a sec­ond team of in­struc­tors ear­lier this year, I was des­per­ate to be­come part of their move­ment. To quote the ti­tle of a TEDX talk on She Flies that Ball did re­cently: “Who runs the drones? Girls.”

02 | Young women gather to take part in a She Flies work­shop.02 Dr Daniela Vavrova

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