Intergalactic inspiration to get girls into Stem

9th March 2018 at 00:00
Star Wars actor Kelly Marie Tran
Female role models for Stem-related jobs are in short supply. But Star Wars actress Kelly Marie Tran – who plays a resistance maintenance engineer in the new movie – is swashbuckling proof that times are changing. Nick McGrath reports

It’s about time,” says actress Kelly Marie Tran, talking about her resistance maintenance engineer character Rose Tico in the latest intergalactic Star Wars battle, The Last Jedi.

She is passionate about women playing roles with a focus on science, technology, engineering and mathematics (Stem), so was delighted to be cast in the role – and that the makers of Star Wars created a character to inspire girls across the world about the subjects.

Tran’s is the sort of character that rarely gets on to the big screen, she says. “There are certain perceptions among young girls that Stem subjects aren’t the most attractive to choose and perhaps that’s because of the way those subjects or professions are depicted. We don’t see many females in those positions in movies or on TV.”

If you’re a young girl thinking about doing maths or science and you see someone female on screen in one of those roles, “it’s going to feel much easier to go down that route”, Tran says.

“If I’m any sort of role model to young girls thinking about taking that path, then that’s an honour and a responsibility.

“I’m proud to advocate this because it will make more girls believe that they can succeed in this area and that can only make the world better.”

Relentless diet of reality TV

Tran, hailed as the breakout star of the film, believes that, culturally, there is a big issue preventing Stem take-up among girls. A relentless diet of looks-focused reality TV, pop videos and fashion magazines is detrimental towards young girls potentially choosing a Stem career, she says.

“Those things are poisonous, especially when you’re a young girl, and I think that we should just throw all of that away and stop thinking about what we look like and what we need to do so that people will like us,” she explains.

“If we just focused on other things, I think the world would have progressed a lot further, a lot faster. But the fact is that this is the society that we live in: we will always have reality TV, we will always have those kind of things that distract us from what it really is that you want, and I think that you just have to block out everything that gets in the way.”

In the movie, which sees the return of Luke Skywalker as well as the final big-screen appearance by Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia before her death in December 2016, Tran’s maintenance engineer character enables the rebel heroes to rise up against the Dark Side.

Tran believes her narrative arc is a powerful metaphor for the importance of support roles in real life. The role of the “unseen” hero – so often the lot of the Stem career option – is made clear in the film, she feels.

“It’s so important,” she says. “The experience has really highlighted this for me, that every single person that’s in the limelight of any sort of situation has 10, 15, 20 people behind them helping them get ready. These people that we’re saying have ‘less glamorous’ jobs or are in the background – they’re completely crucial: those in the forefront wouldn’t be able to fight or do all their heroic things without them.

“I’m really excited that Rose is an example of that, and I hope that we get to see more of those types of characters in film, TV and books.”

Visibility factor

This visibility factor is a key part of the Pretty Curious campaign, orchestrated by power giant EDF Energy, which has joined forces with Star Wars to raise awareness of, and encourage girls and their parents to look at, Stem careers. The UK currently has the lowest proportion of females in Stem roles in Europe.

Narmeen Rehman, a fuel systems engineer for the company, is an ambassador for the campaign. She studied Stem subjects alongside art at GCSE and A level before reading engineering science at the University of Oxford, where she was on the OxFEST (Oxford Females in Science and Technology) committee.

She has been mentoring Year 9 girls at a local school this year and her input has led to an instant doubling in girls choosing Stem subjects at that school.

“Despite what some may think, science allows you to be more creative, and it really pushed me to find out more about the world around me and how I could use my skills to contribute to society,” says Rehman, who currently works on the safe and reliable generation of electricity from the UK’s nuclear power plants, including extending the life of structures and machinery at Hinkley Point B and Hunterston B stations.

“For me, it’s about giving people choices. I believe everyone should have equal choice to pursue whatever career they wish without cultural or societal barriers,” she says. “I was interested in how things worked as a child, and also loved art and creative things, so engineering was a natural fit for me as it helped me to work out creative solutions to problems.

“It is very important to have support from an early age and, despite not having any role models within the education system, my mother more than made up for this.”

She says that she hopes roles such as Tran’s can have a substantial impact. “We need to raise awareness of the issues surrounding the lack of girls in Stem, and the most effective way to do this is to introduce them to inspiring role models and give them hands-on experiences.”

Tran did not have engineering role models as a child but she did have strong females to look up to, and that is just as important in getting girls into Stem, she says.

If we can get strong females on screen who make decisions for themselves rather than complying with the pre-set ideas of society, she adds, then Stem careers will benefit from an influx of women in no time.

Nick McGrath is an entertainment, travel and lifestyle writer

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