Speaker by Various Artists


The Agony of Vanuatu and the New Climate Colonialism

by Dave Hansford

We used to detonate atomic bombs among the Pacific peoples – now we drop weather bombs. Vanuatu lies in ruins. Aid workers arriving in Port Vila have already described the death toll and damage as catastrophic, and Vanuatu’s lands minister, Ralph Regenvanu, expects that much of the population – 266,000 people – will have been affected. Eight people are confirmed dead so at time of writing, but more will almost certainly be reported as communications are re-established with the country’s many remote offshore islands.

“This is the worst disaster to affect Vanuatu ever, as far as we know,” Regenvanu told media yesterday.

Everybody is blaming a Category Five tropical storm called Pam. But in fact, we all had a hand in Pam’s rampage across the Pacific, which also mangled Kiribati, Tuvalu and the Solomon Islands. I drove my car just yesterday, and I probably will again today, as though nothing has happened. After all, it looks like New Zealand will get away pretty lightly – again.

As usual, nobody – except bloggers and climate campaigners – will present Pam as the unqualified enfant terrible of climate change. But they will suggest the link, as already has Rachel Kyte, World Bank vice president and special envoy for climate change. You already know how this goes:

I don’t think I would say climate change caused (Cyclone) Pam, but I would say the fact is in the past three or four years we’ve seen category fives coming with a regularity we’ve never seen before. And that has some relationship with climate change. It is indisputable that part of the Pacific Ocean is much warmer today than in previous years, so these storms are intensifying.

That’s fair comment. Wind speeds of up to 270 km/h have not so far been common – only Orson in 1989 and Monica in 2006 have matched her, but in terms of sustained wind speeds, Pam has hiked a furious new bar. At the bottom of it all lies some incontrovertible physics. Warmer air can hold more moisture – roughly four per cent for every 0.6ºC increment – one reason blizzards shut down New England cities in January. More moisture means more energy, higher wind speeds, more destruction.

Those doing all they can to avoid action on climate change – governments, industries, corporations, business lobbies – will go on insisting that no link has been proven, much like the one the tobacco industry insists doesn’t exist between smoking and the premature death of its sales base.

But scientists are getting bolder in their findings, and more assertive about presenting them. In January, researchers published a paper that found 35 per cent of the deluge unleashed by Superstorm Sandy, the Atlantic Hurricane that killed a least 233 people in eight countries, was a consequence of climate change. And there, at the very least, lies one truth we cannot go on denying: such storms are not conjured by climate change, but it undoubtedly makes them very much worse.

New Zealand has lately donated between $14m and $12m in development aid to Vanuatu each year. Much of what that helped build is now rubble. Vanuatu must start over, beginning with $1m of emergency funding from us and AUS$5m from Australia. The Government would likely point to such largesse as nothing more than the compassion of a good Pacific neighbour, but while it’s happy to be seen bankrolling band aids for the symptoms of climate change, it cynically obfuscates action to ease the cause.

Come December, a New Zealand delegation will sit down in Paris at what commentators are calling our last, best chance to reach agreement on climate action. Our Climate Change Minister, Tim Groser, has been tight-lipped about the position they will take there – unsurprising, since Cabinet has yet to announce any post-2020 emissions commitment targets (the deadline for our national plan is the end of this month). But pre-2020, our commitment has looked less than total – a cut of just five per cent from 1990 levels – and a number of countries have called us out on it.

In 2012, Naderev Saño, lead climate negotiator for the Philippines, broke down midway through his address to the COP18 climate talks at Doha. Overwhelmed by the destruction of his homeland by the shrieking violence of typhoon Bopha: he begged for action: “I appeal to ministers: no more delays, no more excuses. Turn things around at Doha. Let 2012 be the year the world found its courage.”

That was, instead, the year Aotearoa walked away from the Kyoto Protocol, even as climate bad boy Australia confirmed its re-commitment to what was the only binding climate game in town. In doing so, the National-led Government neatly escaped having to pay any penalties in the event of missed targets, which will likely be the case.

Now, New Zealand is party instead to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, an entirely voluntary proposition that provides the perfect set of eminently moveable goal posts and vertiginous playing field the Government much prefers.

Groser, who by now must be suffering OOS from having his fingers perpetually crossed behind his back, defends our climate position in artful language: in 2013, he insisted that our dismal five per cent target “demonstrates that New Zealand is doing its fair share to address global climate change.”

In fact, Ministry for the Environment briefings show that the only way New Zealand might meet even this pitiful token is by buying cheap overseas “hot air” carbon credits at an estimated cost of $68m. Without them, we’re on track to blow out to a roughly 20 per cent increase in emissions – more than 130 million tonnes extra – by 2020, and a 50 per cent rout by 2050.

Yet Groser must have been feeling lucky, because he went still further to claim the target “compares favourably with our traditional partners’ actions”, assuming that nobody would go away and check, thereby discovering that the UK and EU had actually committed to cuts of 30 per cent and 20 per cent respectively over the same period.

Aotearoa has become a pariah at climate talks, not least because it leads a camp seeking “opt-in, opt-out” provisions, and a ban on any legally-enforceable penalties should national targets be missed. It also seeks to have the warming effect of methane – one of New Zealand’s most voluminous pollutants – redefined so as to lessen our total emissions.

It continues to seek exemption for agriculture, claiming – fatuously – that it is our role to “feed the world”, when in reality we barely figure in the grand scale of global food production rankings (we’re the largest global trader in dairy, but not the biggest producer by some margin).

It insists that, given our preponderance of hydro power, there’s little more we can do to curtail energy emissions, as though our almost entirely fossil-fuelled land transport and industrial energy sectors were not, in fact, the fastest-growing sources of new emissions. As though this Government hadn’t borrowed billions for an orgy of motorway building. As though it hadn’t slashed spending on public transport, walking and cycling, even as it woed oil and gas companies with $8m of enticements last year.

Our delegates point also, to the fact that we have an emissions trading scheme. Well, yes we do, and it’s widely recognised as one of the most dysfunctional, ineffective and grossly unfair regimes to have been floated anywhere. It has repeatedly exempted farmers, who are responsible for nearly half of all New Zealand emissions, and will likely go on doing so until somebody summons the courage to start making them pay for their own pollution, as the forestry and energy sectors are already forced to do. Most significantly, it has manifestly failed to make the slightest dent in greenhouse emissions. This is the travesty the Government offered up as “New Zealand’s primary tool to help reduce New Zealand’s emissions and help New Zealand meet its international obligations ...” when it signed the Majuro Declaration for climate leadership in the Pacific in September 2013.

But of all our deceits around the climate table, the one that raises the most ire is our insistence that, because New Zealand contributes something like 0.15 per cent of global emissions, our response should be somehow commensurate until, as Groser has stated, “we can see more effective global action. Then we will increase the pace.” In other words; “you go first.”

Breathtakingly, he told Lisa Owen late last year that he believed the key to success was “to get more countries to do stuff.” Until recently, Groser has been able to point to China and the U.S. and chant the same facile excuse that, so long as the world’s largest emitters had shown no commitment, we should feel no moral compunction ourselves. As though New Zealanders were not the fourth-highest per capita emitters on the planet.

But in November last year, Barack Obama and Xi Jinping announced a bold deal to slash their respective countries’ greenhouse gases. The U.S. has pledged to double its current reduction trajectory, to between 26 and 28 per cent below 2005 levels by 2025 – on top of the 17 per cent reduction it’s already committed to before 2020. China has promised that its climate emissions will peak by 2030 (its dependence on coal-fired generation means it’s starting from the back of the grid). The EU has already adopted a new, higher target of 40 per cent reductions by 2030 that it will take to Paris.

It will be fascinating to see how the New Zealand Government responds to this gauntlet. The game is well and truly up: the last of its excuses has been whipped out from under it. Any further attempts to weasel out of meaningful binding reductions, to cynically sandbag our agricultural exports behind a wall of protectionism, to keep on denying our role and responsibility as a global citizen at this last, best chance for action, will be received very poorly.

New Zealand has a history of colonialism in the Pacific, its copybook blotted by the annexation of Samoa, and its subsequent shameful treatment of Samoan independence fighters. Today, we see a new kind of colonialism, in which the interests, the welfare – even the survival – of our Pacific neighbours is still a matter of minor importance compared to those of the business interests that this Government believes are all that shore up our domestic economy. So it will slip another cheque inside a condolences card and send it to Vanuatu. Let’s hope that the Government has more stomach for this cynical climate colonialism than the voting public.

As I write this, people are being evacuated from coastal communities along the East Coast. Pam, and the superstorms that will inevitably follow, will draw ever closer, and ordinary New Zealanders will one day understand the agony of Vanuatu, and Tuvalu, and Kiribati, and finally behold our true place and predicament on this small, shared planet. Maybe then we can approach the climate table with our heads high, and our fingers uncrossed. Look our Pacific neighbours in the eye. Because we’re all in this together …


1080, "eco-terrorism" and agendas

by Dave Hansford

When he labelled a threat to contaminate infant milk formula with 1080 Tuesday as “eco-terrorism”, John Key was drawing on equal parts opportunism and ignorance.

Clearly, the revelation that Fonterra and Federated Farmers had been posted, back in November, 1080-laced milk packages was a gift to the Prime Minister, who has for months now been trying to convince us that his cavalier attitude to public surveillance and enabling laws has all been for our own protection. The opportunity to get the “t” word onto the front page was irresistible and eagerly seized, but when he prefixed it with “eco”, he knew not what he was saying or doing, because none of us has any clear idea what “eco-terrorism” is.

The two prevailing definitions almost contradict one another – one calls it an act of terrorism committed by “environmentalists” – whoever or whatever they are – while the other calls it an act of destruction against the environment, often for political ends.

The baby formula threat clearly shrugs off the first definition, because nobody concerned about the environment would do such a thing. That leaves a political motive, and now we’re getting warm. Here, Key may well be right for all the wrong reasons. He’s had his back to the environment for so long that he probably doesn’t understand that the vast bulk of opposition to 1080 in New Zealand – certainly the best-organised and funded – has a political, not environmental, motivation.

There are, broadly speaking, two wellsprings of anti-1080 sentiment in this country. One is a largely reasonable, mostly peaceful-though-passionate sector sitting out left of the green movement. These people are vehemently opposed to the broad-scale application of any toxin, for whatever end.

This is not unreasonable – it would be difficult to find anyone on either side of the 1080 imbroglio comfortable with the notion of laying poison. But many of these opponents can only hold their strident position if they ignore 60 years’ worth of inconvenient truths – intensive field research, toxicology studies, persistence tests, public health studies and monitoring – and chant instead many execrable claims about ecological collapse and endocrine disruption.

Only a month ago, a former public health worker insisted to me that what she believed was a disproportionate incidence of cancer in Southland was down entirely to the application of 1080. When I asked her just how it was supposed to get into the human food chain, when it been proven in dozens of studies and simulations not to persist in water, she said “well, they’re all hunters down there aren’t they?”

The media could have laid all this to rest years ago, simply by reporting that which has already been scientifically, empirically established, peer-reviewed and published in a whole library of academic journals. But as we know, editors – especially those struggling with falling readership – love stories with “legs” – those that run on and on. Reported straight, 1080 would in fact, have rather short legs. But mainstream media has given it stilts by faithfully quoting a now-familiar litany of risible claims, knowing that will keep the letters to the editor coming.

In January this year, a piece in The Press, '1080 Drop May Have Killed Rare Birds' penned by Helen Murdoch, led with the inflammatory line:

The Battle for our Birds campaign may have almost wiped out a population of the very species it aimed to protect in Kahurangi National Park.

This sort of intro is a gift to the hunting lobby, and, it turns out, that’s who it was faithfully parroting. The claim had been made by long-time 1080 opponent Bill Wallace, who had filed an OIA with DOC to find out about the number of rock wren re-recorded following a drop last October. Of 39 birds noted before the operation, only 14 were found again after it. Wallace – and The Press – went large with the assertion that the birds had been poisoned. Wallace then extrapolated, and claimed that the rock wren was only rare because of 1080, a position that ignores everything studied learned and recorded about stoat predation on rock wrens. That too, was dutifully reported without check.

What the piece only told readers in passing, well down the order, was that a storm had blanketed the drop area in heavy snows days after the 1080 operation. It was entirely plausible – likely, in fact – that the missing birds had simply headed down-valley to escape the worst of the weather for a while. After all – and this critical point was never made – the birds were not found dead, they were simply not re-located.

Wallace’s claims rightly belonged in the opinion section – he had presented not a jot of evidence to support them (and the journalist had asked for none) but here they were, a hidden agenda cloaked in junk ecology, being reported in a metro daily as news.

In 2009, hunters and 1080 opponents Clyde and Steve Graf released an anti-1080 DVD, Poisoning Paradise – Ecocide in New Zealand – funded in part by the Deerstalkers’ Association – which claimed, among other things, that an aerial 1080 operation in Nelson Lakes National Park had killed 12,000 native birds. The Press duly ran a story, entitled Our Poisoned Land?'

There was a photograph of the two hunters with nine tiny, feathered corpses lying in the snow. And therein lay the first clue that all might not have been as it seemed; old birds, or males that cannot secure optimal territory with adequate food supplies, routinely die in winter, when the operation took place.

Furthermore, the nine birds were all the pair recovered; their tally of 12,000 deaths was, they told me in a subsequent interview; a “tongue-in-cheek” figure they claim to have extrapolated by “turning DOC’s science on itself.” DOC duly performed post-mortems on four of the birds (five were blackbirds, introduced species which DOC has no mandate to protect) and found 1080 in none of them.

But the damage had been done. This is how such nonsense gains currency in the minds of an unknowing public, and the hunting lobby knows it. When it reports unqualified conjecture – or outright propaganda – this way, the media repeatedly fails its own tests of accuracy, fairness and balance. No wonder we cannot have a rational, informed conversation about it. 

The media, more than any other institution, is responsible for the dismal quality of "debate" around 1080. It is a scientific issue that can only sensibly be discussed within scientific terms of reference, guided by scientific rigour. But like climate change, it’s been politicised for private self-interest. Instead, lobby groups keep rolling Trojan horses up to the doors of the newspapers, ramshackle constructions of tin foil and tape dressed to look like science, but packed tight inside with self-interest and agendas.

Just who are these plotters? Well, like editors, there are others with self-interested motives, who believe they have still more to lose. Many – though not all – recreational hunters detest 1080 because, in its standard formula, it kills deer, as well as rats, mice, stoats and possums. This is insufferable to a lobby group motivated – characterised – in large part by a florid sense of entitlement. They believe that the only way a deer should die is by the spreading, soft-nosed, organ-shredding smackdowns of one of their own bullets.

But lobby leaders are careful ever to publicly distance themselves from 1080 protests. They well know that the public would have little sympathy for their claim to entitlement over a "resource" accessed by a minority. They know too, that they cannot oppose 1080 on animal welfare grounds, given their habit of felling creatures with expanding, high impact rounds. That only leaves them recourse to the standard strategy – profess instead a concern for the environment and keep repeating the same untruths about the toxin, safe from any challenge by reporters, until the public no longer know what to believe. Manufacture doubt.

At the other, far-right, end of the lobby lurks a paramilitary element that has routinely resorted to “eco-terrorism” to try to force conservation and policy backdowns to protect “their resource”. In 2004, memos orbited the fraternity urging hunters to release stoats onto Stewart Island in reprisal for 1080 pest control operations. A leaked circular, purportedly issued by a fringe then known as Hunters’ Heritage, enjoined:

Let Animal Health and Forrest (sic) and Bird have their little victory over the Blue Mountains and while they are poncing about patting themselves on the back we should just quietly go ahead and establish new herds.

This blatant deceit caused more than one suggestion that a few takahi (sic) and kakapo should be popped just to teach the lying pricks a lesson. We couldn’t possibly comment on such a suggestion. But if a few of the boys drop off stoats on Breaksea or Maud Islands who could blame them?

There is nothing yet to suggest or disprove that the infant formula threat has come from some delirious hunting/survivalist fringe, but it’s important to note a certain M.O. here. We all understand that toxins – like fracking, like alien activity, like contrails, like bar codes – can and do attract a certain type of personality – witness the hysteria around fluoridation. The fact that this person has threatened public health when presumably they oppose 1080 on the same grounds is confusing, and hints that it is not the considered action of anybody in good mental health. People on all sides of the argument will be rightly appalled by it; conservationists, hunters, scientists, whoever.

As for John Key, he’s simply managed to squeeze off a cheap shot of his own – whether it lands in the ranks of the greenies or the terrorists, who cares? He landed his hit. The media has done it again...  


Science comes to the Arts Festival

by Richard Easther

thinkScience began with a Twitter conversation between me, Auckland Arts Festival chair Victoria Carter and Robin Hickman, about how to make new ways for New Zealanders to connect with science.

We  have been working on this for over a year, and are hugely excited that thinkScience will make its public debut with three events at the 2015 Auckland Arts Festival on March 14, as part of the festival’s White Night and family weekend.   

First up on the day are the Science in the City panel discussions in the Spiegeltent, exploring how science predicts and shapes the future of the city.  They'll be convened by Jon Bridges and the topics are "What makes the city work?" and "How can ideas change our world?"

Panelists include Tim Hazeldine (University of Auckland, Economics), Victoria Crone (Xero, Managing Director), Steve Pointing (AUT, Ecology), Ella Henry (AUT, Te Ara Poutama), Lillian Grace (Wiki NZ), Shaun Hendy (University of Auckland, Physics), Vend CEO Vaughan Rowsell, Cather Simpson (University of Auckland, Physics and Chemistry). This will be a smart discussion about the future of Auckland, so Public Address readers should feel at home here ...

The headline thinkScience event is New Zealand’s science superhero, Nanogirl (aka Dr Michelle Dickinson), live in the Auckland Town Hall, taking you and your family on a super-ride in an unpredictable science performance. Nanogirl will show us how much fun it is to create science magic. The show is a big production, coming to the Festival direct from Nanogirl's laboratory. It will an awesome event, and things will definitely explode ...

And in the evening, microbiologist and glowworm enthusiast Siouxsie Wiles is overseeing Biolumination. In Q Theatre Siouxsie and selected artists will be displaying works made with glowing bacteria. Aotea Square will play host to a photo booth with a difference, where people can step into the dark to be photographed by the light of bioluminescent bacteria, and you can even try your hand at making your own glowing art in a petri-dish.

Personally, I can't wait for the Festival events, and thinkScience has exciting plans for the future. Come, enjoy the day, and stay tuned for what happens next...


Stuck inside the Great Disruption

by Greg Jackson

Four years on from the worst Christchurch earthquake, we are still living inside the great disruption that Christchurch life is now.

I've done big thinkings about the big picture  before in other places, this time I just want to do small thinkings about the daily grind of life in our evolving city. Few of the constants you take for granted in First World life are consistent in a post-disaster city.

When we talked through where it's at now in our household, the one you know as Hebe on Public Address said it was the inconsistency and constant change that gets to her most. So many changes, in every area of this family's daily lives. All near unthinkable four years ago.

 Traffic routes change, roads are dug up, routes squeezed, easy road trips turn into traffic jams overnight. The pop-up shops of the post-apocalyptic landscape vanish to be replaced with steel and glass blandness. In “Town” you get lost because everything has been bulldozed and there are no landmarks to see. We get a beautiful new supermarket (I went every day for the first week) but the local library is now a weedy, windblown vacant lot.

We live close to the epicentre of the February 22, 2011, city-flattening earthquake – 3km away near the pond by Rapaki Track – and St Martins did get seismically kicked around for a couple of years. Near 15,000 quakes since September 4, 2010, with The Noisy Neighbour, the Port Hills Fault, ponying up a good number of them. 

Our neighbourhood is on the uptown side of south  Christchurch, with tree-lined well-gardened streets, sheltered by the Port Hills, and the meandering Heathcote River that has a flair for the occasional evil flood. Think Midsomer without the visible human carnage. 

We moved in from the beach six years ago, buying this well-loved little cottage  because it was within walking distance of the Steiner school that looked like it would see our teenage sons right through from the magical kindergarten up to high school graduation. After the February 22, 2011, earthquake the boys' best friends left town. Abruptly, last year, the boys left school too,  after 10 years in the previously-strong community of children and families.

Just one wee world among many blown apart.

They love their new school, but it is right across town by the University of Canterbury in Ilam. The school itself is readjusting to four years still out of its inner-city home and many changes in staff and students. Luckily their bus route survived the weird pogrom that the local government people did to the bus routes that has turned many commutes into much longer and drearier trips.

Quite early on Hebe and I became infuriated with the EQC fantasists that looked at our house and their reports, and we decided to await decisions about the status of the land. 

One son was badly traumatised by the February quake, my knee was shredded in escaping from my office in Manchester Street, and after a feverish bout of projects, we all got sick. More good reasons to wait.

Telescoping several years into a paragraph is not easy but from this vantage point we've watched the passing parade of repairs and renovations in this area: the exterior painting of a nearby house as the snow fell, the jacking and packing of piles, the glueing back together of ring foundations, and the endless painting.

Along with most of Christchuch the preening, keening, posturing and wrath of the inner city dramas is totally peripheral to our lives. Christchurch devolved to residents living in their villages post-quakes and in many ways it has stayed that way, even with a unifying City Council in place.

While the backdrop of daily life has been one of constant change, there has been an inherent assumption in the mix that somewhere, somehow a new normal is on the way. Except that it is not.

We had thought from our very good gossip and data networks as befits ex-journalists that things were slowly getting sorted on the home fronts. Not always the results people sought, but a gradual inching toward some sort of resolution.

Our own barometer of change, the dump next door, deserted since September 2010, is still there but now slated for demolition. We've grown used to the rats in the garden, and our cats' hard work to keep them down. I cut the overgrown lawns when the grass seed throws Hebe into a full-blown allergy attack and the fire risk soars.

We have all learned to be ready to duck when the roofing iron blows off in the howling Canterbury nor'wester. When the hazard team turned up to kill off the black mould infestation inside the dump, we even had the reason for our own dragging-down health explained.

This year we find another house nearby has gone from EQC repair to over-cap and possible demolition. Skip one house, and a large solid-looking beauty is said to be in the firing line.

A good half a dozen homes within five minutes' amble along the riverside dog walk route have abruptly gone “ping ping ping”. Some looked rough but one I can recall featuring in a kitchen style feature in the local paper just five years ago.

This very morning Miss Dog and I stopped in amazement as we watched an apparently intact 90s horror vanish under the teeth of the digger. This had been one I had glared at many times, thinking “why you” while the arts and crafts houses of my  fancy bit the dust. Now by evening it too has gone.

The peaceful neighbourhood has turned into a sort of “renovation Rapture” in reverse where the weak and the flawed are the ones wiped from the face of the Earth. Like many boomers, Hebe and I have made our real money buying and doing up homes. Now we find ourselves in a city-wide version of Changing Rooms, a do-up show featuring an entire city.

These are not caring and sharing demolitions. Because the money from recycling is less than the money for a quick bulldoze of everything, that's what they do; drop the lot.

We don't have a great roof because we don't know if it's worth replacing it yet. I've seen the roofing iron to replace it bulldozed into scrap countless times just on my own street.

What the accrued effect of all this change is you end up with a vague sense of exile in your own city. A city well served with the new wave of colonisers “here to help with the rebuild”. Intellectual hustlers so bereft of nous they fail to see the irony inherent in their generous offer.

What hurts is that the new vision and city taking shape risks becoming so much more timid and conformist than what fell. I'm talking paint colours for new builds like grey, sand, beige. I wish they'd drop the artifice  and put out one called “cringe”.

This week they put the uber-coloniser John Godley back on his plinth in Cathedral Square, where he can glare at the acrimonious pigeon roost formerly known as Christ Church Cathedral.

I liked him better when Hebe found him a couple of months after the February quake face-down in a council storage area, where in a brassy, pukka kind of way he had become just folks like the rest of us.


Women, science and superheroes

by Alyona Medelyan

In August last year, I attended the Women in Innovation Summit organized by the National Advisory Council on the Employment of Women. We discussed various issues that prevent women from choosing careers in technology, and from advancing their careers. But what touched me the most were facts mentioned by two of the speakers.

Frances Valentine, the founder of The Mind Lab, said that hardly any girls are enrolled in their after-school robotics classes, instead they do design and art. The sad fact is that this divide happens as early as four years old. Girls’ mums decide that “techie” things are not appropriate for their daughters, simply because this is something they are not familiar with themselves.

Hon Jo Goodhew, Minister of Women’s Affairs, revealed a shocking statistic that came from surveying New Zealand schoolgirls about their future career plans. The top two most-desired careers are airhostess and hairdresser. The lack of ambition is disheartening, and it comes most likely from the fact that these girls have not been exposed to other possible career choices and have not been encouraged by their mothers to achieve more.

I decided to do something about this. Together with The Mind Lab and Futureintech, an organisation that promotes careers in food technology, biomedical engineering, software development and forensic science, we have come up with a concept for an educational career event called “STEAM ahead”

STEAM is a variation on the commonly used acronym STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths), which adds an “A” as in “Arts” in between these fields. Girls excel at many fields that fall into the Arts category, and if they combine these skills with Science, Technology or Engineering, this will open up more career choices for them. My personal career in a field called Natural Language Processing is based on studying both Linguistics (I hold a Master of Arts) and Computer Science. Apple has used a creative industrial design strategy to create products people love using. Girls need to be aware of ways to combine their strengths in careers that are future-proof.

The “STEAM ahead” events don’t just educate girls, but also their mothers about such career opportunities. The tag line is “Bring Your Mum (or alike)”, which makes it into a fun mum and daughter event. Dads are also allowed if mum is not available.

The first pilot event, sponsored by Serato, engaged 20 girls and the feedback from parents was encouraging:

“As a parent it was great to have an event that had young women, telling their pathway stories, who were not much older than the girls present. For my daughter, (17 yrs old) at least, it demonstrated well that many industries, that she could relate to, require IT experts.

Our next event is called “Superheroes STEAM ahead” and it will use the powerful imagery of superheroes to speak to both girls and their mothers. The first speaker, Michelle Dickinson, calls herself  Nanogirl and has been actively promoting science to school kids with initiatives like the 100 Days Project. The second speaker, Jenine Beekhuyzen, founded the TechGirlsMovement and has published a book called “Tech girls are superheroes”, which uses fictional stories to tell girls about the lives of women who work in tech.

This event willbe held at the Neon Foyer at the School of Engineering on February 27th, and was made possible through a crowdfunding effort published through PledgeMe. In just a couple of weeks we raised more than $2000 from private people, companies and organizations, which shows how much interest there is in this cause. A female CEO called me and said it’s her New Year's resolution to support causes that get girls into technology.

At “Superheroes STEAM ahead”, apart from listening to two inspiring talks, girls and their mums will also have the opportunity to talk to women who work in a variety of companies and organizations at a small career fair, featuring Vend, Orion Health, Westpack, Entopix, Skills, SumerOfTech, and She#. They will also find out about courses at The Mind Lab, the Gather Workshops, Code Club Aotearoa and other opportunities to get started while still in school.

I am myself the mother of a two year old girl, who is "girly" in many ways. She is fascinated by jewellery and shoes and likes to play with her dolls. But she is also interested in playing with nuts and bolts. Once we found her gliding a stud finder along the wall, just like her grandad a day before. It would be a shame to discourage her from such activities just because they are not suitable for her gender. I’d like her to try things out and choose for herself. With the STEAM ahead initiative, I’d like to show mothers who think in terms of “girly careers” that there are many more options out there for their daughters.