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Young Australian of the Year - Jorja Schofield is empowering girls in STEM

Updated: Jan 8

✦ Jorja Schofield is one feisty youth, trailblazing her way for young girls to make a blast into the STEM scene.

Jorja Schofield is a remarkable and persistent young leader who contributes to her school and the broader community through the promotion of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) studies and careers for girls.

At 13, she competed in the international FIRST Robotics Competition in Houston, Texas, as a member of the Colleges’ robotics team, which won the Australian Championships.

Jorja is now in Year 12 and is the School Captain at Hastings Secondary College (Westport Campus). She continues to live her passion for STEM growing her skills and helping others.

Jorja spoke in Port Macquarie at the Luminosity Summit for Young People on leadership and gender prejudices inhibiting girls from pursuing careers in science. She is passionate about closing the gap between genders.

As an empathetic citizen and inspiring young leader doing her part to increase the level of representation of girls and women in STEM study and careers, it is no wonder she won Young Australian of the Year 2023 Port Macquarie-Hastings and we couldn't be prouder of her!

It is only fitting that our very own STEM wizard, CEO of Brilliant-Online Veronica Lind would be the one to interview Jorja, having herself gone through the path of pushing through barriers and misconceptions about women in STEM.

Hastings Secondary College

Warren Reynolds is the STEM Project Officer who is leading STEM across nine Port Macquarie Hastings schools.

  1. Lake Cathie Public School

  2. Hastings Public School

  3. Tacking Point Public School

  4. Westport Public School

  5. Port Macquarie Public School

  6. Rollands Plains Upper Public School

  7. Telegraph Point Public School

  8. Hastings Secondary College, Westport Campus

  9. Hastings Secondary College, Port Macquarie Campus

"It is a privilege to work with the bright young students in our nine Hastings Valley Public Schools. I particularly enjoy seeing all our schools come together for STEM gala days and our Lego and Robotics competitions, which I coordinate with Hastings Secondary College," says Warren Reynolds, STEM Project Officer, Hastings Academy of STEM Excellence.

Mr Reynolds is the Officer for the New South Wales Educational Directorate and he works in conjunction with them. Their objective is to push for STEM programmes across all of the schools in the district. Having come from a robotics engineering background, Mr Reynolds has been working with all the children trying out their skills in mechatronics and electronics.

STEM is in her blood

Veronica visited Jorja at the Hastings Secondary College Westport campus and had a lively conversation about STEM, women and empowering future generations.

Jorja is studying a range of subjects for her HSC - biology, extension science, graphics, engineering studies, and Math and English - and she is absolutely lapping it all up! She has a hunger for learning and even does extracurricular art school (since Year Seven). This is her sixth year doing the Robotics Team, the Hastings Heroes 6508, which is an FRC robotics team. She is captain of this team.

She has now moved on to take on a mentoring role in the team as captain this year. She is coaching the younger students that are driving behind the wheel. Jorja basically lives, eats and breathes STEM. She loves the building aspect of robotics. She does a lot of CAD (computer aided design) such as 3D printing parts for the robot and also designing the parts. And get this, for her extension science and graphics major project, she is designing and building a bionic hand! She is 3D printing it, and connecting it to her muscles using an EMG sensor. Basically, when she flexes her hand, the bionic one will copy those movements. This is not a random Sunday afternoon project Jorja does for fun. She wants this to work and be cost effective and she intends for this to be something third world countries could use, or even as a temporary arm for someone who has just had an amputation. Jorja is one youth whose vision extends far, far beyond her immediate environment.

Inspiring the next generation

It's not enough for Jorja to simply enjoy STEM on her own. That is why mentoring is a natural next step for her. She's now one of the oldest members of the robotics team and as captain, she does a lot of mentoring. She teaches the younger ones about CAD software, building and how to drive the robot. Beyond the technicalities, she knows the more human aspect of STEM is just as important, and comes with its challenges which need to be addressed and given support.

Whenever she can, Jorja talks to others about finding their own place in STEM. Jorja has experienced what it was like to struggle to talk and reach out when she was in Year Seven. She's now helping younger people find 'their tribe' so to speak, and establish their rightful place in STEM. She does a lot of mentoring with primary school children as well. She visits primary schools and mentors their Lego robotics team. It's something Jorja enjoys doing and seeing them get all excited is a great motivation for her.

It's clear for Jorja that an important part of what she does is to encourage young girls in STEM to pursue their passion and claim their place. Last year, she was an emcee at the Lego robotics competition for children from ages six to 14. She organised everything and got the children engaged and excited at the camp. Her goal is to inspire younger girls and open up a whole new world of STEM to them, and to show them all the opportunities available to them and not let anyone stop them.

Let your voice be heard!

Jorja's passion and belief in what she does allows her to find her voice and speak up. And she's not letting anyone or anything stop her.

In the world of STEM, even though there are girls who are interested and are studying it, they tend to be introverts and it makes it hard for them to reach out, speak up and stand their ground. They are a voice that has been kept quiet under the radar for too long. Jorja knows the pressing importance of having the voices of these girls be heard. Now.

STEM has a huge impact on our everyday lives and far beyond into our future. STEM is everywhere, and without it, we wouldn't have the life we have right now.

Jorja has experienced the damaging effects of gender stereotypes in STEM. What to others may sound like a 'little' joke can be a major setback for girls. As adults, we need to be really mindful and responsible for the types of unhealthy narratives we unwittingly blurt out to young people. It was something that really rattled Jorja when she was much younger, when adults made disparaging remarks about girls doing STEM. When she was in Year Seven, there weren't many girls in the robotics team and it was something she had to push through. Sometimes she got comments from males her age thinking they were better than her or who felt they had to explain things to her or do things for her as if she did not know what she was doing.

"You can't do that. You're a girl!"

That was the sort of frustration Jorja experienced and she overcame them by sheer persistence. If someone told her she could not do something, she absolutely CAN and WILL!

"I CAN do that. I WANT to do that. So I'm going to do that!" - Jorja Schofield

Public vs Private Schools

Another obstacle Jorja has had to overcome is the whole misconception of the public school system. Many think that private schools are better because they have better facilities and lots of fancy resources so the students there are smarter.

What Jorja wants people to know is children in the public schools also have opportunities and have access to great facilities. Because people do not know this, they think that children from a public school are less intelligent. And this way of thinking seeps into the minds of the children and affects their self-esteem. It is driving home the grossly untrue message that just because they are from a public school, they are lesser than and are not capable. It creates an "I can't" mentality. Some may even think being in a public school is a restriction for them to achieve their dreams. It means they give up even before they've even tried.

Jorja wants people to know that there really isn't that much difference between the public and private education. A student from a public school can also achieve success and do great things. She for one is very grateful for all the opportunities her school has given her, such as the robotics team. Without that, she would not be the person she is today, and she would not have achieved her successes today.

Karen Noble, Rel. Principal at the Hastings Secondary College, Westport Campus says, "We are committed to supporting all of our students in pursuing their passions, interests and achieving their personal best regardless of their gender. We recognise the importance of encouraging and empowering girls to pursue their interests in STEM fields, and by providing opportunities for girls to engage in practical learning experiences, connecting them with female role models in STEM, and creating a supportive and inclusive learning environment, we are forging pathways for our female leaders to thrive in future STEM and engineering careers. We believe that all of our students have the potential to excel in STEM, and we are committed to helping them achieve that potential."

Lending a helping (bionic) hand

Jorja was excited to show Veronica a mock up of the bionic hand she was building. It's built on the basic concepts of face recognition i.e. when you move your hand on the camera, it triggers the hand to move. She has 3D printed it and is waiting to put the parts together. The most difficult part of this project is wiring it up and connecting it to muscles and skin. She is using CAD to design this, specifically Fusion 360 and modelling it in there. It's interesting to know also that Jorja based this bionic hand off hers!

Jorja is looking to finish this project and get it working. She would very much like to put it out on the market if it works and if not, her attitude is classic Jorja, i.e. continue working on it!

Jorja looks to the future

Jorja's plan is to go to university next year to further her STEM studies. She wants to get into either biomedical engineering or biomedical science. She is very interested in the 'bio' side of STEM e.g. bionics prosthetics, hearing aids etc. Anything related to healthcare is her cup of tea!

One of her biggest wishes for 2023 is to inspire young girls to be able to have opportunities in STEM, to push past boundaries and Do Great Things.

When she received the award for Young Leader of the Year, she got a grant. Jorja wants to use that grant to take a group of girls from the college who are interested in STEM and take them to Newcastle to show them the STEM facilities there. She wants to talk to them and inspire them and hopefully, create a STEM Girls group for the college. This will be a space where they can all come together to have this connection, meet each other, share their experiences and provide support. She would like to get this established for this year before she leaves high school. For Jorja, it's really important to have connections with like-minded people, and with people who go through the same struggles with gender stereotypes.

While this has not been started up yet, Jorja's goal is to find these girls by going into science classes and talking to them about it. She already has a few girls in her robotics team whom she's getting to come on board. It's about spreading the word through the teachers and hopefully she'll have a solid group of girls to do that to start a weekly group.

Advice for girls in STEM

"Just do it! Don't listen to people who put you down."

"If someone says I can't do it, it makes me want to do it more! I have this fire in my belly and I'm going to prove the naysayers wrong!" Jorja believes that's the attitude everyone should have to go about achieving things. Jorja wants to make Little Jorja proud. She wants to make a little me who is excited and wants to learn and do great things. Jorja hopes she has stood by Little Jorja and done her proud.

"I want to make Little Jorja proud!"

And we definitely think she has. What an inspiration to listen to a young person with so much drive, fire and zest. Jorja is already making a huge difference in the lives of so many young girls, and the legacy she is building right now is going to lift up so many more. Each young girl she empowers will continue to do the same to another, and this is one amazing domino effect we want to see ripple through our society. As adults, there is clearly a lot we can learn from Jorja, and perhaps we too need to step up and encourage gender equality not just in STEM but in other areas where we have blindly fallen to stereotypes.

We wish Jorja the very best of luck in her studies, her career and future. Way to go, Little Jorja and Big Jorja!


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