Please indicate if your Initiative is an Established Initiative.
Team - who worked on the project/initaitve
Siddharth Verma, Founder & Executive Director
Lauren Riddell, Operations
Claire Wong, Communications
Bree Bergin, Strategy
Founder & Executive Director
Founder / Executive Director
Overview - Provide a summary to introduce the project or initiative
BrainSTEM is a not-for-profit with a mission to build a global STEM collaboration platform that inspires students to think and innovate by solving real-world problems. With the support of passionate volunteers, donors, and partners, BrainSTEM runs Innovation Challenges to connect students in years nine to 11 with mentors in the STEM and Design fields, at no cost. Over 12 weeks, teams in metropolitan and regional Melbourne design, research, and create an innovation with a real-world application; solving the problems of today and tomorrow for their immediate and global communities.
75% of the fastest growing occupations require STEM knowledge. Yet, only 16% of Australian high school graduates go on to study a STEM discipline, with women comprising just 16% of Australia’s total STEM workforce while facing significant pay gaps . BrainSTEM seeks to close this gap by demonstrating the value of STEM education and careers to a diverse student cohort, building essential hard and soft skills needed for their working lives, and giving a platform for industries today to mentor our next generation of STEM leaders.
Since 2015, BrainSTEM has reached over 250 students. Our commitment to diversity has resulted in 60% of students coming from lower SES and public schools and over 55% female students. Our program has provided over 4000 hours of mentoring to students.
BrainSTEM’s organisational strategy is to engage and inspire the adults of the future with individualised/targeted programs to forge an intersection in STEM, gender, ability, background and design-thinking.
How would you say diversity is embraced within your organisation or sector? Are there diversity initiatives in place or are diversity approaches new to your sector?
BrainSTEM’s drive for diversity is achieved through an inclusion and advocacy of all students willing to participate, irrespective of their gender, background, school, or their abilities. This is achieved through increased accessibility for students via a metropolitan challenge for students in Melbourne and the Regional Girls Innovation Challenge, for female students in a regional area. The Innovation Challenges have received a healthy mix of Government and Independent schools choosing to be involved in both metropolitan and regional Victoria, with a near equal split of boys and girls. Furthermore, BrainSTEM mentors and volunteers come from diverse ages, backgrounds, and industries.
Diversity in BrainSTEM is embraced by the very people who help run and support the programs. Volunteers range from university students, business professionals from global organisations, to entrepreneurs and founders contributing towards a shared vision.
Developing new programs to suit diverse groups:
A key example of BrainSTEM’s commitment to diversity is the Regional Girls Innovation Challenge program. Australian students from regional and remote schools reportedly have lower levels of mathematical and scientific literacy , often with less access to education resources compared to their metropolitan peers. In response to these gaps, BrainSTEM collaborated with Women in Science Parkville Precinct (WiSPP) and STEM Sisters, piloting the Regional Girls Innovation Challenge program to bring the same educational opportunities to regional students. More than 50 girls from the Latrobe Valley region took part with 14 female mentors from the top five largest medical research institutes in Australia. Due to the distance, most of the weekly meetings took place over Skype, with constant emailing and collaboration in between. A number of mentors self-initiated a journey out to their teams, demonstrating their commitment and belief in what we do. The BrainSTEM ethos that no student be held at a disadvantage resonated with the mentors, many of whom had come from a regional background.
Demonstrating the value in a new approach to teaching and learning to the STEM community
BrainSTEM’s innovative approach to teaching is a full-scale, immersive and interactive experience where the students are treated in the same manner as an experienced adult scientist, engineer or designer would be; something that cannot be obtained in a high school classroom. They witness firsthand the significant options available for them in the STEM and design fields. BrainSTEM mentors having the opportunity to be role models to a younger cohort and apply a new and different approach to teaching outside of the traditional boundaries of their day-to-day jobs. BrainSTEM has provided student teams the opportunity to present their work at events and conferences, such as the MedTech Gala Night, MedTech’s Got talent Pitch 2018 and the National STEM conference (2017 and 2018) where a team from our Regional Girls Innovation Challenge presented. BrainSTEM believe in the value of students showcasing the achievements of the next generation and the early networking and mentoring opportunities it provides.
Increasing the diversity of our mentors and partners to promote diversity of thought
Through partnerships, active networking and word-of-mouth, BrainSTEM mentors hail from a variety of industries and universities and fields, such as: engineering, healthcare, and design. They have different levels of experience, ranging from post-doctorate students, senior lecturers and researchers. This amplifies students’ abilities to come up with new and unique ideas and approaches to problems. As each team presents to their peers, mentors, and their families at the close of the program, this promotes the sharing and learning of different approaches and innovations in STEM. A structured mentor recruitment and registration program aims to ensure that we have a balanced mentor pool across gendre/experience/qualification and geographical spread.
Detail the approach that was taken to implement the project or initiative, what actions were taken and why?
The BrainSTEM Regional Girls Innovation Challenge was launched in early 2018 after it was identified that students in regional areas were unable to take part in the metropolitan Innovation Challenge due to the distances from Melbourne and the costs involved. At the same time, BrainSTEM knew that female students have lower levels of STEM participation rates, as they may perceive STEM as too difficult or irrelevant, so altering these perceptions is key to changing the face of STEM.
BrainSTEM’s answer to both issues was to develop a hybrid onsite-offsite version of the Innovation Challenge for regional girls so that they too could take part in the experience. A partnership with Women in Science Parkville Precinct (WISPP) and STEM Sisters was brokered; both organisations being committed to increasing female participation and role models in STEM. The multi-agency collaboration secured a network of mentors and schools to take part in the Innovation Challenge while obtaining valuable guidance on how best to structure a program in this market to not only greatly benefit the girls taking part, but also ensure that they did not have to incur any costs. Altogether, this enabled BrainSTEM to adapt and implement our program rapidly without diluting the learning experience.
After the program, one of the teams presented at the National STEM Conference in Sydney in July as a case study of new STEM education models. BrainSTEM believes that this provides a platform for students in regional Victoria to showcase their efforts to a wider audience of STEM professionals and leaders of today, as well as expand their networks. Furthermore, it allows today’s STEM community to witness the value of bringing more practical STEM learning opportunities to our next generation.
Demonstrate the leadership shown in driving the initiative and fostering behavioural and organisational change.
The credit for leadership cannot be simply assigned to Sid Verma, BrainSTEM’s founder and Executive Director, despite his tireless promotion of the organisation, nor can it be assigned to any of the staff involved, even though BrainSTEM has morphed into a very successful program - with no funding and at the hands of dedicated volunteer group.
BrainSTEM is built on a model of lean hierarchy and leadership. Each of the team members is given the space and freedom to take charge of leading aspects of the program.
During the early stages, as BrainSTEM was establishing the process and methodology of its Innovation Challenges, a small team of four volunteers pulled their resources and multi-tasked to collectively contribute.
However, as the programs have grown, the proportionately expanding team of volunteers have also been assigned specific positions of leadership. In consultation with the leadership team of BrainSTEM, the team now has specific responsibilities: Executive (Sid), Operations & Mentor Registration (Lauren), Student registrations (Gemma), Student Engagement (Shuxi / Victoria), Communications (Claire), Technology (Elihu) and Strategy (Bree).
This organic transformation and evolution of leadership in the organisation has been achieved by adapting to the change of both the organisation as well as the team members as they have built their expertise within the organisation.
Additionally, by establishing a transitional model where the more experienced members (with roles in industry and corporates) have been able to mentor and coach the younger members of the team (university students), in growing into their respective leadership positions.
Was there organisational/industry or other resistance to the initiative? If so, detail the actions taken to overcome resistance to the project or initiative.
The main challenge faced by BrainSTEM is managing our growth in line with scaling the programs. As interest grows, BrainSTEM adapts to the increase in demand by implementing new and more tailored programs, while developing a robust backbone of structure, processes, and systems in parallel.
Overall, BrainSTEM is well-received by all organisations and industries (educational, research, and private industry) that have been involved. Over two years, BrainSTEM has built credibility by running six innovation challenges free of charge for students, while still obtaining positive feedback from all participants in each round. This has enabled a demonstration of value and good faith, which is then used to continue nurturing relationships with schools and mentors to ensure future participation. Additionally, this has built new partnerships with organisations and educational partners who demonstrate a shared set of values with BrainSTEM.
BrainSTEM continues to uncover specific needs of cohorts who are interested in participating, but may face barriers in distance and the relative costs associated with overcoming this. To cope with demand and improve the ability to deliver tailored programs for different audiences, BrainSTEM has increased the number of volunteers and worked towards securing new sources of revenue through new programs to ensure a more sustainable approach. This revenue will increase the ability to offer the program to a growing amount of students from all backgrounds.
BrainSTEM operates in a structured, yet vibrant manner that allows for flexibility when the circumstances and needs of the participants require it. Clarity on how the target audience (and secondary audiences) responds to the programs, and ideas on how to scale new programs in the future is tantamount to the success of the program, as all staff recognise that adaptivity is key to survival. For instance, rather than implement the Innovation Challenge internationally, a Design Challenge is being launched for both domestic and international students to initially understand their needs and expectations, before establishing operations in a new region entirely.
Taking a measured approach to our growth and expansion plans allows us to maintain the quality of the outcome: to have a positive and transformational impact on the students that participate.
BrainSTEM is taking steps to ensure that we set in place systems and procedures that will lay the foundation for our planned growth.
Detail the follow up or response to the project or initiative by the organisation /industry /sector. For example has it been extended for a further year, or has the scope been expanded?
To date, BrainSTEM has implemented two specific programs:
The BrainSTEM Innovation Challenge for Melbourne metropolitan students (seven programs since 2015 - has grown from four teams in late 2015 to 12 teams in 2017 and 2018)
The Regional Girls Innovation Challenge for girls in regional Victoria (one semester completed in 2018)
Due to the success and growth of both programs, BrainSTEM will continue running them to bring STEM opportunities to more students, schools, and mentors. This will continue to 2019 with a mission to have reached 400 or more regional girls in Victoria.
Alongside both programs, BrainSTEM will implement an additional program called the ‘Design Challenge’ for various schools and universities open to both domestic and international students. The objective for this program is to:
(a) test the receptiveness of a short five-day intensive design-thinking program for both domestic and international audiences, and
(b) test its viability to generate revenue to enable BrainSTEM to extend the program for free to regional and Indigenous communities.
Overall, this is in line with the goal to bring STEM opportunities to all communities, irrespective of barriers they face, alongside partners that share the vision to bring more opportunities to make STEM more equitable and accessible to all.
Please provide 2 references being the beneficiaries or people that experienced the change (as a result of the initiative). Details to be provided should include:
4. Phone number
6. Short description (up to 250 words) of association with the nominated diversity initiative eg as a beneficiary, experiencing the outcome, etc.
Dr Gianni Renda
Deputy Director, ARC Training Centre in Biodevices at Swinburne
Senior Lecturer, Industrial Design
Swinburne University of Technology
Phone: 03 9214 6026
Dr Renda has been heavily involved with BrainSTEM since its inception in late 2015. In every challenge he has generously volunteered his time to mentor and coach groups of students from all backgrounds in Industrial Design and the application of the field in everyday life. His specialty is in health and biodevices, aiding in better life experience and outcomes for people experiencing difficulties through disability, injury and aging. Dr Renda has also used this opportunity to involve his PhD students so that they can round out their doctoral studies with an often overlooked aspect of research: teaching. BrainSTEM is an enjoyable program for the mentors because they can simply have fun with their teams, without having to keep in mind the need for exam preparation or adherence to standardised curriculum. Dr Renda has used his time with BrainSTEM not for his own benefit, rather solely for the benefit of others, and is always the most in demand mentor in the program, known for his tireless drive and dedication to his students.
Year 12 Student
Eltham High School
Marianna was one of the earlier participants in the BrainSTEM Innovation Challenge. Since then, she has gone on to develope and even stronger interest in STEM. Not only that, she has become the STEM leader in her school and inspired other students to develope their interest in STEM.
What outcomes have been achieved against overall program or organisational performance? Using metrics specify these outcomes, for example financial, growth, policy achievement, performance or capabciltiy uplift?
The results from our Innovation Challenges have been nothing short of remarkable. As mentioned earlier, across the six (Metropolitain) Innovation challenges and the inaugural (Regional) Girls Innovation challenge, BrainSTEM has been able to achieve:
250+ students participate in the program (40% growth adjusted over 6 programs)
4000+ hours of mentoring to the students
55% participation of female students (consistent across 6 programs)
60% participation of public / lower SES schools (consistent across 6 programs)
Our team has grown from two volunteer staff in 2015 to nine in 2018 (150% growth adjusted over 3 years)
Our volunteers also have a diverse mix of University students and Industry/Professional with an almost 50/50 split.
All of this growth has been achieved on the back of no funding.
What do you consider your significant achievement with this Initiative and why?
Education is a crowded space. Programs that offer something different and unique are hard to find. What started as an aspirational idea back in 2015 with a mission to run a STEM mentoring program for high-school students, has now established itself own unique place.
We take pride in how the program has evolved and matured - after listening to the feedback received from our participating students and mentors.
Achievements can be often measured against a specific target. However, we would like to measure our achievements in terms of the impact we have been able to have on our participating students.
Receiving feedback (both positive and negative), has given us the insights to ensure that the work that we do is even more aligned towards the desired outcomes of our participating students.
Given below is a snapshot of some of the feedback received that we would identify as our achievement(s)..
"After participating in the BrainSTEM Challenge, I am now even more interested in pursuing a career in STEM"
"While I had a lot of fun in the BrainSTEM Innovation Challenge, it has opened up my eyes to the fact that I perhaps do not want to pursue a career in STEM which is exactly opposite to what my career counsellor was advising me. It will hopefully set me on the right track"
"My parents wanted me to become a Dentist, but after participating in the BrainSTEM program, I have come to realise that I am more interested in clinical research. I will select my VCE subjects accordingly"
Such feedback imakes us realise that it is so important to provide these young adults the right mentoring and the right time for the right amount of time, that provides them the space to experiment, explore, fail and discover.
We do, and will continue to, measure our achievements in terms of the impact we have.
Who inspires you from a diversity perspective? Who provides leadership in diversity and why?
The team at BrainSTEM draws inspiration from each other. As we are all driven toward a common goal and share the same vision, it is hard not to feel inspired.
However, as the founder of BrainSTEM, I still recall the story of one of our very early participants in the program. She started off as a shy, unsure and lacking in confidence. However, after working with her team, work-shopping and researching her idea, she spoke about how as a team of high-school girls they have invented something that can save an infants life.
Such a significant transformation in a span of ten week is one of those impactful moments that inspire me.