As a woman in STEM, Ball has experienced first-hand the gender gap which exists in this area.
In fact, before launching the World of Drones Congress in 2016, which Ball made sure had a 50/50 gender split across speakers, she says it was typical for her to be the only woman in a room of anywhere up to 100 men.
It was this experience, as well as some stark statistics which moved her to launch She Flies, a company dedicated to improving female participation in STEM.
“My co-founder Dr Karen Joyce works at James Cook University using drones to monitor the Great Barrier Reef and so she and I had a conversation one day about the drone industry, we tried to work out how many women were in it,” Ball recalls.
“We figured that in our networks we each worked out [there were] about fewer than 1 per cent females across those industries.
“We were like, ‘ah, this technology is the most egalitarian and accessible technology that we’ve ever seen and used as scientists, why is it that we have this lack of female uptake?’
And so acting on the mantra, ‘if you see it, own it,’ Ball and Joyce decided to look at education as a vehicle for closing the gap.
“Education is a beautiful paradox I think, because it’s a thing that has to be standardised, but it has to now be very innovative and disruptive,” Ball says
“How can you disrupt something that has to be standardised? It’s a real challenge and also a massive opportunity. Because … with regards to drones, Australia is ahead of the rest of the world, in terms of drone regulation, and drone use from a commercial and drones for good perspective.
“And so we are, with She Flies, in demand across the globe because nobody else has even thought of doing it or creating it.”
She Flies runs drone camps and drone days for students, training for teachers and evening events for parents keen to learn more themselves.
But it’s not all about girls, Ball says.
“We’re called She Flies because we were founded by women, but we teach men and boys as well as women and girls.
“So we work with the schools to make sure they have adequate opportunity, and that normally means separating the genders, just because of different learning styles that we know is backed up in literature and lots of understanding around STEM education with girls,” she explains.
The team at She Flies are also working on an online learning management system, where teachers can access lesson plans and ideas for incorporating drones into different parts of the curriculum.
Because according to Ball, drones can extend well beyond the technology classroom.
She says the coding, robotics and geospatial data involved with drones are concepts which would be at home in the maths classroom, and set students up well for the future.
“People that can understand and manage large and complex data sets, something that we call big data, [are] going to be absolutely important to our economic growth,” she says.
“Big data is the next big thing now, as we get more and more data, we have smarter devices, we also need artificial intelligence to help with actually managing that data. Those are based in mathematics and coding.”
Ball says English teachers can also experiment with drones, which are able to be programmed to write text in the sky, and even art teachers can get in on the action.
“So one of the most favourite things we do on our drone camps is actually the girls using coding to make the drones dance and then dancing with the drones,” Ball says.
She Flies drones have also been used to take photos of student artwork, or create artistic light displays.
“They’re not just things that fly around taking photographs, they can be things that can make music, someone’s programmed drones to play musical instruments,” Ball laughs.
For schools that don’t have big tech budgets, Ball says there is a light at the end of the tunnel.
“The beauty is … they really are cheaper and they’re getting smarter.
“And they’re getting more competitive, because there’s more different drone companies coming up now with educational standard drones.”
Ball suggests chipping in with neighbouring schools to purchase a drone pack which can be shared around, or reaching out to local businesses to see if sponsorship is an option.
“She Flies has been helping schools identify sources of funding that you would probably not even consider.
“We’ve had local businesses that have actually helped sponsor some of the drone camps and the drone days, so you’ll find that if you call out to your local community, there are businesses, for example, that might want to sponsor a drone club, or a drone pack.”
“We’ve also found there’s some great state grants we’ve had the digital education grants here in Queensland. There’s definitely grants available from state government and potentitally even federal government, to be able to buy this kind ofequipment.”
Ball will be appearing at Melbourne’s Future Schools in March. She says those who attend her presentation can expect “enthusiasm, positivity and empowerment”.
If you’d like to hear more from Dr Catherine Ball, watch her TEDx talk here: