Monash Nova Rover is changing the path for women in STEM

by The M-POWERed Collective
Tuesday 30 May 2023

We all know that you can’t be what you can’t see – and as younger generations decide which career path to embark on, it’s critical we have female role models in industries that are traditionally male-dominated. While the proportion of women working across all STEM-qualified industries has continually increased from 24% in 2016 to 28% in 2020*, we’ve still got a long way to go. Which is where university students Chloe Chang and Rebecca Leith come in. They’re the co-CEOs of Monash Nova Rover – a team of university students designing, fabricating, and testing the next generation of Mars and Lunar rovers in Melbourne – and used their rover to spark a much-needed conversation. When they unveiled a fluorescent pink rover, the message was clear: STEM is a place for women. “Pink is historically associated with women and femininity. From our experience, pink is mostly absent from STEM, which mirrors the harmful stereotype that women and femininity don’t belong in STEM spaces,” say the duo. “By making our rover pink, we are combating this by clearly juxtaposing the lack of pink elsewhere in STEM. The striking aesthetic is intended to bring visibility and spark deeper conversations about women in STEM.”

The dynamic team are three-time champions of the Australian Rover Challenge held in Adelaide since 2021; and the only Australian team to ever be invited to the finals of the University Rover Challenge, an international robotics competition held in Utah, United States which sees over 100 teams enter yearly. “We have been invited to the finals four times and in the most recent competition finals in 2022, we made the podium, placing second to the top team by a margin of 1.6% of the score. Our success is attributed to the hard work and innovation of our diverse team with almost 100 members. We all put together small pieces of the puzzle to bring to life an incredible piece of engineering,” they say. In June 2023, they will compete in the University Rover Challenge finals. Here we speak to the two women about their incredible work and what’s ahead…

You are a team of students passionate about designing and building the next generation of Mars and Lunar rovers – what is your mission?
Our three core missions are: To lead student representation within the Australian space sector on a global stage;  Foster engagement with STEM amongst younger generations; Promote equality in STEM industries by leading the way with a diverse workforce.  

How can we better foster engagement with STEM technologies amongst younger generations?
Early education programs to spark interest in students before they have decided on their career paths or learnt any negative stereotypes linked to STEM. Ensuring these are equal opportunities for everyone to have access to STEM. Providing accessible resources to make discovering STEM easier for students; online platforms with many STEM activities (like downloadable activities or online shops to buy robotics kits) or YouTube channels for inspiration from role model STEM enthusiasts.

As two female co-CEOs, how would you describe your leadership style?
We would describe our leadership style as authentic and empathetic. We try to stay true to who we are and never lose sight of our main goal to make sure everyone grows and gains valuable experiences from being part of the team. We try to make decisions with the group as often as possible, it is important to us that we are listeners. We make giving feedback and suggestions accessible and try our best to address any concerns raised. We attribute success to all of our team and try to commend the work of others on the team as often as we can. 

Past generations of women haven’t necessarily been able to use their voice to speak up for change. As two young, intelligent and driven women, how do you approach speaking up for what you believe in?
Chloe: It is hard to speak up. It is hard to make change. But we know that if it was easy, it would have been said or done already. Finding the confidence in yourself to speak up starts with realisation that we need change at all costs understanding the first steps will be hard. For me women should always have a voice and speak up, my advice is to demand to be heard not fearful of being shut down.

Bec: We have this fantastic platform at Nova Rover, where we can feel confident and free to voice our opinions and promote our own values. With the team’s support we have shared our views throughout our community, spreading the values of our team to a wider audience. We have received positive feedback from people in our community who are grateful that we’ve begun these conversations. We now feel it’s our duty to continue, since we have the confidence, the platform and we know there are people who are benefitting from what we are doing.

You talk about how pink is historically associated with women and femininity – how have you challenged this with the Nova Rover campaign?
Bec: We have noticed the common trend that pink and typically feminine things are not present in STEM environments. Pink has been associated with flowers and babies, things that are soft and fragile. The Nova Rover is an award-winning robot that is mostly made of metal and is highly robust, undergoing rough conditions in desert environments. The rover is not soft nor fragile. Painting the rover pink, with it still able to handle harsh environments challenges the perception of pink. A pink robot might be expected to be a joke or a novelty, but this robot is not only powerful and mighty, but it is already a national champion and has been invited to compete in the world stage with the top 36 teams from around the world.

Chloe: Traditionally, the colour pink is associated with femininity, delicacy, and youth. Conversely, STEM fields are associated with logical thinking, stability, and independence, which are often stereotypically characterised as masculine traits. The Pink Rover’s bold aesthetic brings visibility and sparks a conversation. This is because of the unique and unlikely pairing of pink and STEM. We want to use our Pink Rover to illustrate the differences between these stereotypes so we can challenge obstructive attitudes and beliefs in the hopes of creating a more inclusive environment in STEM. We are attempting to dismantle stereotypes by showcasing that women and girls can be interested and excel in STEM fields, even if their interests and hobbies may be considered “girly” by societal norms. We hope to impart just as you shouldn’t judge a rover by its colour, you shouldn’t judge a person’s ability based on aesthetic first impressions. We think that Pink Rover for some can bring a new association with pink or femininity, simply you can like pink and/or be feminine but also be a good engineer. We hope this also brings about self-reflection of unconscious bias and to be more open and inclusive in STEM.

Before enrolling in engineering, Chloe you were intent on a career in fashion design – when and why did you pivot in a new direction?
In my teenage years I was very passionate about fashion design and making my own clothes. I would spend my weekends and holidays with my mother, my sister and fashion design mentor bringing my designs to life. I loved colour, sparkles, shapes and of course pink! I was super into DIY projects and was always making things. I also studied visual art in high school all the way to year 12. So, a career in fashion was something that suited my creative passions. But I also loved maths and science thanks to my grandfather who spent many summers teaching me growing up. Nearing the end of grade 12 I came across a career guide and the first page I opened was about aerospace engineering at Monash University. I had no idea what that was but after some research I thought it would be such an adventure to pursue something so challenging and different as to build a plane. After my first year being exposed to this incredible new world I discovered robotics and fell in love with it and enrolled into a mechatronics degree. Then I joined the Monash Nova Rover team, this was a pivotal moment for me because this was when I became sure that engineering was for me and I developed a love for mechanical and robotic systems. I got to come up with designs and bring them to life which in hindsight is similar to what I was doing in my teenage years but in a different context. The team has propelled me into the space sector, and I will start a new job in July as a mechanical engineer at Lunar Outpost working on a rover that may one day go to the moon. I think it’s humbling to have happened upon engineering but I wish I was introduced to it earlier and I hope that education will evolve so that young girls in the next generation get the equal opportunity to become engineers.

And Rebecca, you were an aspiring professional ballet dancer – tell me about your change in direction?
I trained with the Queensland Ballet during my final years of high school and performed in pieces with them throughout my first year out of school. When I didn’t receive a long-term contract with the company, I decided to enrol in university and give something new a try. I’ve found my way into science and engineering through the people I’ve met at Monash. I spent a long time struggling to maintain my identity as my career aspirations and friendship groups changed dramatically. I used to spend all my time with other girls, wearing tutus and going to the gym. Now I have mostly male friends and spend my time in work boots, using hand tools or writing code in the library. While these environments are extremely different, I’ve found the same sense of passion and camaraderie in both places. I love working together to achieve a common goal, in ballet this occurs when you’re in the corps (20-30 dancers all dancing in unison), and in engineering this occurs in student teams (building a rover to compete in a challenge). 

Young women have spoken to you about wanting to do engineering but feeling too intimidated – what is your advice to them?
Bec: It’s all about confidence. If you have confidence in yourself, you’ll be a fantastic engineer. To gain confidence, find what works for you: do your own research to find projects and resources that will give you engineering skills to use in class. Do the classwork ahead of time, so that in class you can spend the whole time getting help from the teacher rather than attempting the questions for the first time. Your friends are your resources, everyone is friendly in engineering and another person may have just the idea you need to kickstart a brainstorm leading to the solution.

It is hard because it is such an intimidating and male dominated field. It is hard to penetrate that environment and be accepted sometimes. Having said that the first few steps will be daunting and hard but I see it as a challenge and it is the most exhilarating feeling to overcome challenges. I think what helps is accepting that you will fail and that is the first step to success and not to be fearful of it. I have failed millions of times and got things wrong but that is 100% part of it. Take more risks and make the most of every opportunity that comes your way. There is also a lot of initiative you need to take to put yourself in the best position to succeed. But I find that comes easy if you are passionate about it. I tell women I meet who ask this question do what you dream to do without hesitation. 

Finally, what’s next for you and your Nova Rover team?
We will be competing at the 2023 University Rover Challenge in the US. We’re also collaborating with the first every National Indigenous Space Academy (NISA) at Monash, hosting workshops in rover robotics basics. We will continue to build our community of women in STEM with more events. Finally, we will continue to visit more schools and share our love for STEM and hopefully inspire the younger generations to consider a career in space.

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