Young Australian of the Year 2012 – Marita Cheng

As part of my – highly enjoyable – wanderings through Australian history and current events, I came across this week information about this year’s newly appointed ‘Young Australian of the Year’, Marita Cheng. This award has been made every year since 1979 and recognises exceptional achievement in 16-30 year olds – an excellent idea, it strikes me, for motivating others and celebrating the success that comes from hard work and courage. Previous recipients have included young Olympic sports stars, people who have overcome significant adversity and hardship, and people who have set up charitable organisations and made a difference in the world – all extremely laudable activities.

Marita Cheng is an engineer – or at least, she will be when she eventually graduates from her engineering course at the University of Melbourne. Although she is still a student, she has already shown immense dedication to the cause of engineering, and to encouraging young women to take up a career in engineering. In 2008 she founded Robogals Global, an organisation that uses fun and educational activities to teach schoolgirls about engineering and the difference that engineers make to our lives; already, through Robogals, she has been responsible for running robotics workshops for 3,000 girls across 80 schools in Australia and now has 17 sub-groups functioning across Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom.

We know that – still – engineering does not attract women to the same degree that it does men, probably because it still has an image wafting around it of grease, dirt and physical labour. The truth of the sector now is that it is as much about intelligent thinking and design as it is about building, and we still have work to do to ensure that girls especially (woefully under-represented as they are in the profession) understand this.

Marita is an impressive young woman. She has a Nancy Fairfax Churchill Fellowship, an International Youth Foundation YouthActionNet Fellowship and an Anita Borg Change Agent Award. She has been a panellist on ABC TV’s New Inventors programme, and she plans to start a robotics company, creating robots that will take care of many everyday and mundane tasks. It is clear that already she has changed the way that girls view their ability to contribute to engineering and technology. I hope that I may meet her one day!

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