Hunter students are the cream of the crop

Students from two lower Hunter schools have risen to be top achievers in a statewide STEM competition for girls. Sven Wright reports.

Two students holding awards and their teacher. Two students holding awards and their teacher.
Image: Students Andrea Sherin and Lotus Antoni with teacher Jade Bassett at the Sydney presentation of their project to create biodegradable packaging for milk.

Making biodegradable milk packaging from waste milk product sounds like a sustainability fantasy, but it is exactly what two Year 8 Rutherford Technology High students have achieved.

Andrea Sherin and Lotus Antoni won a statewide competition encouraging girls to study STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects.

Over Terms 2 and 3, the pair worked with their teacher and mentor Jade Bassett on a process using casein protein, extracted from waste milk products, to create a biodegradable plastic alternative for milk packaging.

The team, called ‘DairyWay’, are now the champions of the Pitch for the Planet competition.

Pitch for the Planet is the major event of Orbispace, an Australian charity encouraging girls to study STEM, with emphasis on industry partnerships.

This year, the challenge was to create sustainable innovations to reduce emissions in the Australian dairy industry, with credit for creativity, problem-solving and business potential.

The program culminated in the competition finalists pitching to a panel of industry judges at the Sydney Startup Hub, a NSW Government workspace in the CBD on 11 September.

Andrea, who has hearing loss, said the Orbispace initiative had helped her become more comfortable speaking in front of an audience.

“It has shown me that people with hearing loss can start their own businesses regardless of circumstances,” she said.

Three of the four finalist teams, including Rutherford Technology High, were schools in The Hunter Academy of STEM Excellence. The two other Hunter Academy teams were from Maitland Grossmann High.

Maitland Grossmann High School team ‘MuPu’ designed a way to harness the energy in cows’ methane emissions, while ‘Calm Milk’ used flexible solar panels on milk trucks to help power their cooling and other energy use.

The fourth of the finalists, ‘Oxen’, from Ravenswood School for Girls, designed a collar and app to detect heat stress in cattle.

Ms Bassett said the students had excelled academically and developed leadership skills that would serve them well in their future careers.

“I am immensely proud of their accomplishments and grateful for the support that made this initiative possible,” she said.

Maitland Grossmann High teacher and mentor Emma Hearn said the program offered an opportunity for students to be creative and innovative.

“I believe every student who participated in the program has walked away with confidence to achieve anything they put their mind to,” she said.

The Rutherford Technology High team won a small cash prize for the school and a two-day technology demonstration tour of the University of NSW.

The Orbispace initiative is supported by the Department of Education, which provides funds for 50 students from public schools to participate.

The Department’s STEM Industry School Partnership (SISP) program, which includes several Academies of STEM Excellence, also plays a role in promoting STEM education and fostering collaboration.

Ms Bassett said the success of the students underscored the importance of empowering the next generation of female leaders in STEM and entrepreneurship.

“Gender should never be a barrier to achievement in the world of science and technology,” she said.

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