Episode 5: Supporting your STEM student

Rebecca Vincent: Hello, everyone. My name is Rebecca, and I am a third year Bachelor of Science Student majoring in environmental science. I chose this field of study it because always been interested in climate change since I was a little kid. I love the challenge of solving complex global issues. I find the world is full of wonder, and I want to do my part to ensure that we don’t destroy it too much.

In a very festive fashion, a friend of mine was recently given a pair of new noise-cancelling headphones and he’s been raving about them ever since - and also making multiple attempts to convert me to that particular brand of headphones. Now, I always have been a little sceptical of noise-cancelling headphones. Sure, they are manufactured in a specific shape that is designed to muffle outside noise, but how effective can this really be?

When I put this particular pair of headphones to the test, I was surprised by their performance, and so I decided to do a little bit of research on how noise cancelling headphones actually work.

Turns out, those headphones are not just muffling outside noises. These are using the power of physics to get rid of those noises altogether. Sound is made up of waves, and as a sound wave moves through the air, it compresses and expands the air in

repeating patterns. Noise-cancelling headphones listen to ambient background sounds and calculate what sort of sound wave is needed to cancel it out.

The headphones then produce their own sound waves with a pattern that expands the air where

the first wave was compressing it and compresses the air where the first wave was expanding it, so the complete opposite, if you will. They stack waves on top of the sound, they add together and cancel each other out. You can think of sound waves as mountains and valleys. So, where the mountains were, they add valleys, and where the valleys were, they add mountains. The sound landscape is now flat, it’s cancelled out.

This phenomenon has an official scientific name, and it’s called a destructive interference. Now, it’s worth noting that this technology works best if the outside noise is fairly consistent, like a loud airplane engine, for example. If the noise is sudden or if the pitch is all over the place like a baby crying, it’s much harder for the headphones to react in time and, thus, won’t work as effectively.

You may in fact be listening to this with noise cancelling headphones. If you’re looking at engineering, maybe you can improve the next generation of headphones, and finally cancel out those crying babies!

I’m Rebecca, and good luck in your scientific adventures.

Amy Shepherd: Hello, hello, is this thing on, can you hear me…are we recording? Buffy, are you there?

Buffy Gorrilla: Hello, what Amy - yes, I can hear you…

Amy: Good, that means everyone can hear us - ahh, noise canceling headphones - the dream for young people and maybe the nightmare for parents attempting to talk to their kids.

Welcome to episode 5 of the Secret Life of STEM - my name is Amy Shepherd, I am one of your navigators for this episode. I am here with Buffy Gorrilla. Hey Buffy!

Buffy: Hi Amy, thanks for the intro… yes, young people, you can half listen to this episode - it’s mostly for your mum, dad - you know - the adults, guardians or mentors in your life.  Amy and I have pulled together some stories and experiences that will help whoever is helping you, to maneuver your STEM future.

Buffy: When it comes to mapping out a future, there is a range of parental involvement out there. Here’s what Grace McKee, a bachelor student from Monash University, had to say about how her parents supported her through highschool. It started with year-10 Grace studying…

Grace McKee: chemistry, bit of science. Year 10 was the year that I did maths a year early, so in year 10 it was a very, very, very big deal that I got to do some maths methods and I thought that I was like the coolest, smartest person because I was able to study maths a year ahead. And I also did, I think a bit of textiles and a bit of music all at once. I did quite well in math in year nine and I think that's because I saw tutors for my parents. And then the next year I was able to apply and be able to study more maths a little bit earlier than everyone else.

Buffy Gorrilla: And were those tutors because you were doing badly and you wanted to do better, or - why did you need tutors?

Grace McKee: The tutors were just very much because I had parents who had very high expectations of me. My parents had identified their expectations of me before I'd identified my expectations of myself and at that age their expectations were that I would do well in high school. So the tutors were to support that.

Buffy Gorrilla: And is it hard living up to those expectations?

Grace McKee: It was, in high school. Getting out of high school and going into Uni has very much been a process of readjusting what my expectations are of myself. And it's a hard process.

Buffy Gorrilla: And did you ever have discussions with your mum and dad about those expectations?

Grace McKee: Very much. Discussions. Very much coming into first year uni when I didn't want to focus on getting the highest grades as much as I wanted to focus on working on extracurricular activities such as joining the vegan society and starting like a girls in STEM organization, I wanted to focus on those and gain that extra skill set and just have fun. Whereas that was when my parents, they were seeing that I wasn't on the path that they'd set out for me and they were seeing me readjusting it and there was that bit of tension there because it wasn't what the usual was.

Buffy Gorrilla: And has everything calmed down now?

Grace McKee: Yeah.

Buffy Gorrilla: 'Cause you're in year three now.

Grace McKee: Yeah, I'm going into my third year of uni. It took awhile for me because my parents, they very much had strong expectations of like academic success. You follow this progression that is like the societal expectation. You go to uni, get a job, you do this, you do this, you do this. And I'm realizing that that's not who I am deep down. I think I like much more ... I don't think that the traditional path is for me. I'm still doing uni and I love uni, but I don't see myself just getting a job and sticking with it for the next 10 years and so they're a lot more understanding of that or so I've convinced them. I talk about all the things I'm doing all the time and they're like, okay Grace.

Buffy Gorrilla: Have they ... I don't wanna say "given up on you" but now felt that they have parented you in such a way that you have the skills that you need to be able to be a success in whatever form that takes in your life?

Grace McKee: I think they just have trust in it right now. It's really hard to know at this age what I'm gonna be doing 10 years from now. And I really like that, I like that I might graduate uni, I'll get a post-graduate job, and I'll see where that takes me, but I like knowing I'm a very project based person and I'm just gonna keep doing the next thing that pops up as opposed to working in an office job that's doing the same thing all the time. And they're aware of that and they have trust that I have the skills to do what makes me happy and that's what makes them happy.

Buffy: But how can you help your high-schooler if you don’t have a STEM background? I met Delilah, a year 10 student at the Marlborough School in Los Angeles - we started our chat with her first STEM-ory… or science memory.

Delilah: When I was really young, I think in first or second grade, my friend's grandpa worked at a lab at UCLA, and she knew that I liked science, so I got to tour it. And her grandpa let me look through a microscope and I just kind of ... My world just kind of opened, and I just ... I got this warm, fuzzy feeling in my chest, and I just knew I wanted to do that when I grew up.

Buffy: Are your parents scientists?

Delilah: They are actually artists. My dad is a musician, and my mum is an editor, a photographer, and she does installations of mosaics and stuff.

Buffy: What do you think they think about your STEM pursuits?

Delilah: They are actually really supportive of me. They just want me to do what I love, and ... Yeah, they 100% back me up, which is great. I'm so thankful.

Buffy: And have you started looking at colleges yet?

Delilah: I have. It's kind of hard not to in such a competitive climate.

Buffy: How do your parents show their support to you with your STEM pursuits?

Delilah: Well, they're all for me, taking classes or doing stuff.

Buffy: Since they're artists and you're into science, how does that little Venn diagram of the family life go together?

Delilah: Well, I mean, even though they're supportive, they don't really do a lot of stuff to ... They don't go above and beyond to help support me in STEM, even though ... I mean, they still do a lot. If I were to find a class, they would look into it for me.

Buffy: When you go up to a college table, let's say at a college fair, I don't know if that's still what they do, and your parents are there, who does the most probing and the questions asking? Is it you or your parents?

Delilah: Definitely me. Yeah. I think that I am definitely the one that has the most questions - because it's gonna be my life, and so I wanna be in control of it.

Buffy: And what are some of the questions that you ask?

Delilah: I ask, "What is the day to day life like?" "What are some of the opportunities that they have?" And, "What kind of majors are they focused on?" And, "If they have like a lab environment, what is that like?" And stuff like that.

Buffy: It’s a rainy Saturday, I have just popped over to visit the Henry family in Melbourne, to meet 12-year-old April and 15 year-old, Rose, their dad, Mark, and their mum Jennifer,  who in full disclosure - works at the University of Melbourne, but I have never met.

Buffy: Hello, Jennifer! Thank you for welcoming into your home today. Hello, April.

Okay April, let’s start with you. What is your first science memory?

April: Probably the Very Hungry Caterpillar.

Buffy: For those people who aren't familiar with the Very Hungry Caterpillar, how does that involve math?

April: It just introduced the whole prospect of numbers and just building up numbers, and how numbers change, and kind of how they work.

Rose: My name is Rose, I’m 15 years old, and I also go to Princes Hill Secondary College.

Buffy: And what is your first STEM-memory? Or - we call them STEMories…

Rose: Great name.  I think in New York when I would take the bus to the dentist or the op shop, or anywhere with mum, I used to get those books of like adding and subtracting. Instead of playing games on my mum’s phone like most kids would do, I would just do maths things, and I would find that really enjoyable.

Buffy: April I know it’s early days, but have you thought about university at all?

April: A bit, since my mum works at a university, except I haven't been like, "Okay. This is the degree I want to get. I have to start this at this age and accomplish this by this age." It's just sort of a thing that I always know I'll probably do.

Buffy: And how about you Rose, do you have a university that you have your eye on, or universities?

Rose: MIT. No. Probably Melbourne University, although I'd really like to study somewhere else, like in America.

Buffy: Contrary to what Delilah told me about her artist parents,April and Rose Henry have grown up around STEM - Here’s their mum, Jennifer Henry, who also is the Senior Manager at Gifts in Wills at the University of Melbourne…

Jennifer Henry: I feel I grew up surrounded by STEM and immersed in STEM. My father was an engineering professor, my mother was a biochemist and then a science teacher at secondary level. All my siblings went off into STEM careers. I married someone whose ... all of his siblings are in STEM careers. It's just always seemed like this is the language that we all speak, and I think there's a place for arts. Where's the joy in life after a hard day of STEMing if you can't go and look at a lovely painting, or see dance, or listen to music? But I think STEM has the possibility of solving all of the world's future problems, whether it's food or housing or security through technology and inventions.

Buffy: How have you encouraged your daughters to think about STEM?

Jennifer: I think, in a way, they're kind of surrounded by STEM, too. I just try and talk to them in logical ways. I remember one day Rose was asking, while we were washing dishes after dinner, about, "What's this about tax?" or, "Why do we pay tax?" or, "How much tax do we pay?" We tried to just answer with little answers, and then as happens with Rose, which we love, one question leads to three more. It's like the Hydra with the cut off the thing and four more snakes' heads pop out. 15 questions later, her father stepped in and said, "Right. Let's sit down with some paper after dinner and do this, after the dishes. He ended up sitting down at this table and mapping out how the Australian taxation system works. Took about 45 minutes.  But that's a way that we try and encourage them to investigate their interest in STEM by giving them the time and the answers and not just fobbing them off. If they want to get involved in shopping for food or learning why we like to buy food that's grown locally rather than overseas, we'll talk to them about that. I think I've tried to encourage them by giving them time and adult-level answers.

Buffy: As someone who works at the university and has come across other parents, how do you think parents, if you have an opinion, should approach encouraging their children to think about university and the degree choice that they might be facing?

Jennifer: I wouldn't want a parent to be intimidated if they don't feel that they know about STEM, but they should know that there's always places they can take their children, who can give them those answers. There's so many resources out there, whether it's jumping on Khan Academy to do some maths problems if the child wants that, taking them to open day, signing them up for public lectures, taking them to things at the public library that look interesting. If the parent can't help their child necessarily with the details of their STEM-based questions, they should be really encouraged and empowered to go and lead their child in the direction where they can then find an answer.

Buffy: Have you ever gotten a question from April or Rose that you haven't been able to answer?

Jennifer: All the time. Since they got past the age of about nine or 10, I think I'm running out of answers. The stuff that they're learning at school now, like coding, I don't have the first idea, because it was all developed since we were at high school. So I don't pretend to know any more, and I'm getting more and more comfortable about saying, "I have no idea." But I'll help them try and find a resource that may be more reliable than the internet. I talk to their teachers and help them find good resources, introduce them to people that I think might know more about it. I take Rose to free public lectures, that are aimed at high school kids, at uni on maths and physics and astronomy. So there's plenty out there. I just don't think parents should feel they need to be on top of it once their kids get past that stage where we can answer their questions.

Amy: Some of the great resources Jennifer Henry referenced are available during University Open Days.

Voice over: Welcome to Open Day at the University of Melbourne! The making of you starts today, so let me show you around.

Amy: I am now entering the University of Melbourne Open Day plug part of the podcast - but seriously, there is a lot to be learned at an open day, and so much free stuff.

Buffy: Amy, you have worked at a University of Melbourne Open Day - can you describe the atmosphere?

Amy: Yeah, it’s remarkably relaxed. You can come and chat with the people who are doing subjects you are interested in, as well as find out about university life in general.

Buffy: To help you prepare for any upcoming university open days ahead - here are some tips from Barney Wray, one of the University of Melbourne’s student recruitment officers. I have heard that his colleagues call him ‘Mr Melbourne’,  so he probably knows what he’s talking about. And remember, these tips are useful for any open day that may interest you.

Amy: And he’s broken down the tips for both students and the adults - first-up, student tips.

Barney Wray: My number one piece of advice has to be to plan ahead. No matter which institutional campus you're going to, all of these places will have great online planning tools, and even just sitting down for 20 to 30 minutes before you get there on the day could really make the difference, because there's always so much going on, it can be a little overwhelming, so making sure you plan is number one tip.

So after you’ve planned, my number one tip for when you're actually at the event itself is of course you get the opportunity to speak to academics and you might find out a little bit more about what you're studying and what background the academic has, those who'll be teaching you, but you can never forget about the students. Every stand will have current students there, and these are the kids who are doing what you want to do. They're only a couple of years ahead of you. Having a chat with them not only about the course content but what is it actually like, what's it like being in these classes, what's it like being on this campus and being a student here? Because they're the little tips and tricks and the insights that you can't get on a website, you can't get from the teachers, it really is that student to student contact. So after planning, definitely make sure that you'll speak to student. I know it could be a little nerve wracking but make sure that you do it because it could be the difference.

My third tip for open day would definitely be to go on a tour, or participate in a lab tour, or a clinical demonstration. Yes. Obviously, a campus tour is great because you're only ... if you just wander around, you might not actually see everything you need to, all the buildings where you'll actually learn but if you can go on a guided tour, usually they're led by students so again, you're really getting that insight about what it's like to study there and all the different little study nooks and best coffee places and all that kind of thing. But also going on something like a lab tour or a clinical demonstration, so walking into these science laboratories, walking into these teaching spaces and actually seeing what could be going on day to day in these different classes, particularly in the STEM areas but really across all study areas. All of those practical learning opportunities are really available through these different types of tours. That can go into your planning ahead of the day so make sure you're signing up for as much as you can.

Amy: And for the adults, Open Days have some sessions which are aimed just for you. Here’s Barney again.

Barney Wray: I think it's always worth looking, always worth parents or guardians looking through the planning tools available as well because again, there's a lot going on. It can be a little bit overwhelming but there might be a perfect little session that they might not have picked up and the parent or guardian could potentially see that. I think that's ... yeah, it's kind of similar to students, making sure that they look ahead and see what's available throughout the day. Most institutions would have some type of parent information session so maybe your student or your child doesn't come with you to that session itself, but it's really specific information about how parents and guardians can support students going to university. Because as special as your little one is, they're not the first one to go through it and you won't be the first parent or guardian to support a young person through university or higher education. There's a lot of good advice out there and a lot of people who have been there before.

Buffy: Open Days are just the start to the whole uni-prep process. Barney says that post-event, there are some things to think about.

Barney: Then after open day, there's a lot of online resources, a lot of great information is sent out through the university's email lists, so making sure that you're on there and all of your details are up-to-date, along with your different study areas will make sure that you get the right information at the right time as well, which is particularly important when you're in Year 12 and you start looking at applying, which is the next big step after open day.

Buffy: Back at the Henry’s,  Rose tells me about her part-time job delivering flyers to various places around the neighbourhood.

Rose Henry: There's this lady on our street, and she owns a beauty salon, and she makes a lot of money from it, because she just lives by herself with her cat and just runs this beauty salon in her house. She started asking me to deliver her flyers. So I went over there the other day to get her flyers, and she wants me to do them as a separate trip and also cover like half the terrain that I normally do. But then, she asked me how much I got paid, and I said, "About $15 an hour." She's like, "I'm going to double that," so I'm making a lot of money now, from that.

Buffy: I feel like MIT is just a few flyer deliveries away.

Rose: Yeah. I'm going. That's it.

Jennifer Henry: She's already working out, if we will loan her money to buy a car now, she's 15, and she'll let us drive the car for a fee. And by the time she's 18, she will have paid off the car, and she will fully own a car. She's just coming up with a business plan to present to us, but...maths just ticking around in that brain all the time.

Buffy: I feel like I'm afraid of you.

Jennifer: No, we're proud. She's not using her math skills for evil yet, just for good.

Buffy: Time for some credits! This series was made possible by the University of Melbourne. Thanks to everyone who shared their stories.

Amy: This episode was hosted by me, Amy Shepherd, and Buffy Gorrilla was my co-host. Thank you, Buffy

Buffy: You are welcome!  The reverse engineering segment on noise cancelling headphones was researched and presented by Rebecca Vincent, with editing and sound design by Silvi Vann-Wall.

Amy: This podcast is produced and edited by Buffy Gorrilla and the supervising producer and science advisor is Dr Andi Horvath

Buffy: Additional production support from Arch Cuthbertson

Amy: You can explore the range of STEM courses the University of Melbourne has on offer by visiting study.unimelb.edu.au - and we’ll pop a link in the show notes.

Buffy: Thanks for listening!

Amy: Hello, my name is Amy Shepherd.

Buffy: Let’s kick this bad boy off.

Amy: I can also try to speak louder.