Kanchana Gamage

Hertford, Hertfordshire

STEMPOINT East Ambassador and STEM Engagement Coordinator, Kanchana Gamage is the founder of the Aviatrix Project.

Kanchana joined STEMPOINT East as its STEM engagement coordinator in early 2020, having been a STEM ambassador through her work with the Aviatrix Project for many years.

She works with STEMPOINT East’s pool of 3,000 ambassadors, as well as employers and universities, connecting them to schools and young people to bring STEM careers alive for the next generation.

Kanchana helps schools and young people understand the breadth of opportunity around STEM careers and provides employers with the resources and training they need to support their employees in becoming active ambassadors.

Alongside this, her community interest company, the Aviatrix Project, was set up in 2015 to encourage young people from a range of backgrounds to consider careers in aviation. Completely self-funded, with support from Easyjet and a number of aviation organisations, the project has 165 regular active volunteer pilots, engineers, air traffic controllers and airline crew who carry out visits and workshops with young people to inspire the next generation.

How it all started:

From her early years, Kanchana was interested in a STEM career, originally hoping to become a pilot or an engineer. Having been born in Sri Lanka, she moved to England when she was 14 and her parents didn’t have the funds for her to pursue a career in aviation.  Their lack of knowledge about opportunities available and limited access to the language also hindered her progress into a STEM career. Kanchana instead entered a career in teaching, completing a teacher training degree and a Masters at The University of Cambridge.

She became a primary teacher and headteacher, and later a University Lecturer leading a PGCE Primary course at Anglian Ruskin University as well as leading an MEd in Leading Teaching and Learning for an education partner at the University of Hertfordshire.

Kanchana’s interest in aviation remained and in her early 30s she gained her private pilot’s license. Having been frustrated over the continued lack of focus on STEM education, and the clear lack of women within the industry, she used her knowledge in the education and aviation sectors to create The Aviatrix Project.

She explains, “We’ve been having conversations about the STEM skills gap for years, particularly in relation to the under representation of women in the industry, and I realised I had something quite unique to offer by combining my areas of experience.  By learning to fly, I’d built up quite a lot of contacts within the industry and I wanted to bridge that gap, getting pilots and aviation engineers into schools to talk to people about these fascinating careers.

“Our partnership with Easyjet early on gave us exposure and access to pilots who have become our own STEM ambassadors, regularly going into schools to hold workshops or present in assemblies, inspiring young people to do something they never thought could be possible.  We now have such a wide range of volunteers from various organisations and flying disciplines.

“All our ambassadors have a story to tell. It can be expensive to train to become a commercial pilot, but there are solutions and pathways in, with the right support. We support young people and families with mentoring and signposting them to where they can get up to date information and support. It is also one of our main aims to target young people and schools from disadvantaged areas across the UK.

“This isn’t just about flying, we open up the whole industry for them and help them understand the exciting world that is out there.”

The Future:

With her role at STEMPOINT East, Kanchana is bringing together her passions for education and aviation, not only growing and developing the ambassador scheme, but involving her Aviatrix ambassadors in a range of initiatives.

Having worked on a project with the Nuffield Foundation during the summer of 2020 which focused on supporting disadvantaged year 12 students, she is now planning a range of projects including a Diversity and Inclusion panel and STEM Inspiration Days in the Spring, in which her Aviatrix volunteers will take part. She is also supporting a number of organisations to evaluate the impact of COVID-19 on the aviation industry.

The Need For Ambassadors:

For Kanchana, STEM ambassadors work because they become role models, and can ultimately change the life of a young person by showing them something they’d never otherwise consider.

She explains, “As a child, I wish I had access to some of the STEM opportunities I’m involved in now. If someone had come into my school as a young woman and shown me about the world of STEM, it would have changed everything.

“It’s about young people seeing someone that they can actually see themselves becoming. It’s very hard for them to imagine what it’s like to be someone else if they don’t see it in action. This is also why it’s so important to have real diversity within our ambassadors, as even now, there are perceptions around what scientists, doctors and pilots look like.  Ultimately there are no limits, no barriers, only the ones put there by society in the past. I feel a great sense of responsibility as a STEM ambassador from a BAME community to ensure I’m a strong role model.

“We need to change perceptions held by parents, families and teachers too so that the system doesn’t repeat itself. STEM learning needs to be cultivated from a very early age because by year 5 and 6 children are already forming their perceptions about future careers. We’re at a crossroads and I can see things changing from what they’ve been, but it takes passionate people with the right mindset to do this. Ambassadors are a huge part of this.”