As society moves more towards a high-tech model with plenty of opportunities to interact with new technology, now is the time to explore STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics] with your kids. 

Dr Niamh Shaw, an Irish engineer, scientist, performer and one of Ireland’s leading space explorers speaks to us about the importance of women in STEM. 

There has been a real emphasis in getting more girls involved in STEM - have you seen a change happening?
I think that some toy companies have definitely focused on creating more female role models in their range of dolls for young girls which is great to see.

I saw it first with the Lottie Dolls range, and more recently Barbie has launched astronaut dolls, and other companies in the US have also followed suit. This is a good sign of progress but we still have lots to do to engage more girls in STEM.

How did you become involved in your industry?
I grew up in a family where science and space were everywhere- from the programmes we watched together (Doctor Who, Star Trek, Cosmos with Carl Sagan, Life on Earth with David Attenborough, Tomorrow's World) to our activities in the house.

Dad taught me how to change a plug; he gave us assignments during our summer holidays to make comics from space themes of our choice. We all loved technology and still do. So I was always going to keep science in my life.

My mothers family are all musical and storytellers, and my passion for performance comes from that side of the family. It’s no coincidence that I've ended up an artist who wants to go to space because of all these early influences!

What's your favourite thing about your industry/job?
I love that I get to go around the world, and have real-life experiences that bring me one step closer to getting to space- from my simulated mission to Mars to a zero-gravity flight and most recently witnessing a live launch of astronauts in Baikonur, Russia.

For me, it is great to come home and share my stories with everyone. I never feel like it is a job because I get to talk to people of all ages and backgrounds about my passion for space. 

How do you encourage kids to take part? Do you think they have a negative view of STEM before they meet you?
I think the key is to make STEM part of everyday life, part of the things that they already participate in. I also think that getting families involved together in activities has a very positive effect on children's opinions of STEM too.

It is important for mums and dads to engage with their life passions and share them with their children. And it is my job to remind them that science is a part of their passion in some way. Its why I use theatre to attract adults to STEM topics, using my own personal life to tell stories about space and my passion for space.

I don’t think children below the age of 11 years have a negative view of STEM, it seems to happen once they go to secondary school and the relationship between STEM and curiosity breaks down, in my opinion. Adults I find are most resistant to STEM and the most challenging to engage. Being curious is a natural part of being a child, and that is what we need to preserve in education to maintain an interest in STEM as we progress in our career, in my opinion.

Why is it so important that a more diverse group of people in STEM?
For me, it is less about STEM and more about curiosity. Humans are naturally curious, and all STEM subjects are rooted in people pursuing what they are most curious about. Following your curiosity will make you naturally interested in STEM.

That is what I try to do in my work- remind people to stay curious and let their curiosity lead them. That way, an understanding of STEM is a natural progression for them, rather than something that is forced upon them. It is important that we develop a positive attitude to STEM, so there has to be buy-in from people in order to learn something new. Make STEM part of our everyday life.  

Top tips for getting kids more involved in STEM?
Keep playing, keep taking things apart. Keep asking questions, and if people can not give you the answer, devote the rest of your life to find the answer for yourself. And along the way, you'll probably solve something for us all to understand differently too! That is basically what a scientist/engineer is and what drives them - a very healthy relationship with their curiosity.

Arnotts continues to embrace all things education and learning with the return of their STEM event on Saturday 13th October from 10:30am. Dr Jennifer Cleary, expert science extraordinaire will be in-store performing at 12pm, 1:30pm and 3pm, while astronaut Dr Niamh Shaw will also be in-store on the day at 12:30pm, 2pm and 3:30pm all taking place in the Childrenswear Department, Lower Ground Floor.