This paper creates a cartography that maps the affective impact of a Rural Exchange (RE) programme and the way it interfered in a normative trajectory of schooling for the high achieving participant students.Footnote 1 The paper considers the affirming e/affects that evolved for particular Year 10 rural students as they engaged with the RE programme at the suburban selective BlueSky Science School (BSS).Footnote 2 The students relocated from their rural home schools for three weeks to participate in a specialised science programme at this specialist science school. Overwhelmingly, the students reported that the RE programme broadened their experiences and enhanced their sense of belonging to the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM)Footnote 3 field. Students’ testimony evidenced ways their positive feelings and aspirations for the STEM fields were expanded and strengthened through their participation in the programme.

It is through lived experiences that young people ‘come to understand where and when they are or can be in place and out of place’ (Mills et al., 2021, p. 3). It is the relational and affective aspect of an affirming interference of lived experience, as a sense of belonging to a particular specialist field, that is mapped through this paper. The reporting and speculative discussion provided does not subscribe to binary discourses of rurality as a homogenous location of disadvantage and/or that a university/school STEM trajectory is superior to other chosen life trajectories. Rather, this paper is a mapping of these specific students’ affective accounts of experiences during a particular science focussed RE programme, at a particular time and place, in southern Australia.

Braidotti (2018, p. 3) defines a cartography as “a theoretically-based and politically-informed account of the present” where its purpose is to map “the production of knowledge and subjectivity”. An affective mapping evolves as a specificity of materiality and relationality, often overlooked in education and educational research (Wolfe, 2021). My mapping illustrates how participants’ experiences during the RE programme increased their feelings of belonging that enhanced both aspiration and motivation to continue in STEM fields on return to their home school. The data created through the open-text questionnaire responses provided a deep insight into the positive affective impact of this RE programme on the participating students. The mapping created an affective field of textual student response as a situated field—a field of differences—presenting as an emerging situated affective ecology.

This paper uses the created cartography to consider the notion of these students’ capacity to and how the RE programme amplified their capacity to. Students’ growing capacity to is designated as an ecological action of flourishing. Capacity to is not an autonomous attribute that students have or do not have. Capacity to is communal, contextual and relational activity or event happening. Capacity to is created relative to students’ intra-activeFootnote 4 (Barad, 2007) experiences, opportunities, relations and resources, as becoming otherwise with the world. Student capacity to evolves through and with their lived school/life experiences that are necessarily affective, and the individual student is not separable from the contextual events from where they emerge, in intra-action conceived as an “oscillating co-motion” (Massumi, 2015, p. 8) with the world. The research reported on here highlights the affirming affect that the RE experience had for these students as it expanded their lived experience and brought them feelings of joy. Broad joyful experiences are significant for young people, affecting how and who they can be, as how can they become what they have not joyfully experienced or imagined for themselves?

An aspiring STEM trajectory

‘A student focussed national career education strategy’ (Australian Government, 2019) situates rural, regional and remote students as requiring priority attention. The reports’ stated goal, for all students to access a high‑quality careers education, materialises as wanting within many schools, and this phenomenon was evident in the student experience mapped here. The notion that access to quality career education is a capacity-building equity strategy that can enhance student aspirations and increase engagement with STEM trajectories is not new (Watt et al., 2012). An awareness of the usefulness of subjects to future careers has also previously been found as predictive of students’ motivation to engage in STEM subjects (Lazarides & Watt, 2015; Watt, 2004; Watt et al., 2012).

Students’ opportunities “to imagine oneself and one’s future in different ways” (Fleming & Grace, 2017, p. 353) are often derived through experience, and this is no different for rurally situated students. The mapped transversal nature of student experience during the BSS RE programme is illustrative of how student imaginings and aspirations for their own futures can be expanded in a multitude of ways. Student accounts reflect experiences of great joy and satisfaction from the challenging science programme both during and after their exchange experience. Students appreciated the opportunities of experiencing exciting new STEM subject choices and valued the exposure to new STEM fields that broadened their understandings of previously unknown STEM career trajectories. The study found overwhelmingly that the RE programme enhanced the participating rural students’ STEM aspirations and attachment to a range of future STEM pathways. The increased sense of belonging to the STEM field reported by students was particularly salient for female RE participants who described the joy of finding like-minded academic peers, often for the first time.

Participants reported that their Year 10 experience of the BSS RE programme influenced them to be more likely to choose STEM field subjects in their final years of schooling. The young women participants reported that they benefitted from innovative teaching methods and the exposure to high-quality study resources whilst undertaking the RE programme. Male participants also appreciated gaining improved study skills whilst at BSS but particularly appreciated the growth in knowledge regarding the breadth of STEM field careers. As illustrated below, these students were highly critical of their home schools and situated their home schools as deficient. Students named school deficits as poor teacher knowledge and/or interest, dubious teaching practices, and a lack of access to resources relevant to the STEM field.

Aspiration and belonging

The benefits to nations of inclusion of rural students’ perspectives and knowledges in quality STEM programmes have been acknowledged globally (Hudson & Hudson, 2019). Australian researchers and policy makers though have identified that rural students are disadvantaged in participating in university education and that there continues to be little or no significant improvement in participation rates (Fleming & Grace, 2017). This phenomenon has also played out in other Western nations such as the United States of America (Sellar et al., 2011). The barriers incurred by rural students to participation at university are a loss to Australia as a nation, as the consequence is a limiting of diverse knowledges through lack of participation. Rural students are limited by distance and cost to get to university, but they may also have limited access to high-quality affirming experiences (such as expert teachers, STEM mentors and specialist programs/laboratory/equipment and subject offerings). Opportunities such as specialist science exchange programmes are helpful for addressing equity regarding opportunity and may assist with filling these gaps.

This paper maps experiences of everyday events at school that create an affirming affective ecology of school with students. The study maps student felt experiences of a three-week rural exchange programme which resulted in students reporting increased feelings of belonging and aspiration to pursue a STEM trajectory in their future. Affirming experiences create a sense of belonging for students that is central to building relations within communities (May, 2011) including schools. Feelings of belonging emerge when students identify and connect with their relational, material, and cultural environment (May & Muir, 2015; Mayes et al., 2020). The way a student feels about how they belong to their school community directly impacts on not just their retention at school but the development of aspirations, leading to a capacity to fulfil rich academic and life desires.

Affective pedagogies (Boler & Zembylas, 2016; Hickey-Moody, 2013; Wolfe, 2017, 2019), not just subject knowledge, are crucial in understanding equity and inclusion at school. Affective pedagogies are eventful, where pedagogy involves experiences of making relational knowledge (Wolfe, 2021) that affects how students feel that they can come to belong in school, within subject fields and beyond. Feelings of belonging are formed “in the event, in the ecology” (Manning, 2016, p. 119) of schools and classrooms, through performative practices and processes. An ecological approach to belonging is based on recognising and promoting the value of a diverse student population within a school site or school subject rather than requiring diverse students to conform to an existing hegemony that positions who can belong.

This paper thinks through the decision-making process required of students including the initial choosing to partake in a RE STEM programme. Affect theorist Massumi (2015, p. 18) has argued that choice is “A doing done more through me, self-relating, than by my I [emphasis in original]”, as an affective interpellation. Massumi (2015, p. 18) states that it is only “the act of choice that is autonomous [emphasis in original]” not the choosing itself which is unconscious and non-personal. Drawing on Massumi (2015), I argue that these students’ apparent choosing, as reasoned decision-making, is not agency as an attribute embedded in an autonomous student. Agency, I suggest, is formed within the relational ecology made up of students’ home school teachers, school facilities, family, and community—including the very existence of the RE programme in the first place (Mayes et al., 2020). This study highlights the importance of affective elements that made up the ecology, such as the strong influence of students’ home school science teachers who encouraged students to participate in the BSS Rural Exchange programme.

In this study, links are created between a student’s relational capacity to choose alongside feelings of discomfort as non-belonging, reportedly felt at their home school community, regarding their academic interests and their personal career aspirations. Australian students, as measured through the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), are currently below the Organisation For Economic Co-Operation Development (OECD) average in their sense of belonging at school and this negative result is amplified for minority student groups (De Bortoli, 2018). Feelings of discomfort have long been found to create an avoidance reaction (Tomkins, 1995) or resistance to participating in events. Non-belonging, as feelings of discomfort, felt by young people may create barriers to entry into STEM subject trajectories and this limitation may be amplified for some students (Wolfe, 2021). Research has persistently demonstrated that Australian students who happen to be classified female, non-binary, rural, Black, Indigenous, people of colour (BIPOC), lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer, intersex (LGBTQI +), neurodivergent and/or from a low socio-economic background continue in disadvantaged positions in their school/work/life outcomes (De Bortoli, 2018; Halsey, 2018).

The lack of improvement in participation in fields dominated by one gender (such as girls in boy dominated physics, or boys in girl dominated netball) has predominantly been explained through the notion of individual student choice formed through ‘natural’ interests derived from understanding gender as binary and from the belief in biological essentialism. Formal education is ultimately a prescribed process where sometimes ill-informed choices may be incited and actioned resulting in particular students switching out of STEM fields (van den Hurk et al., 2019) due to feelings of dis/comfort and feelings of non-belonging in these subject fields (Wolfe, 2021). Gender equity and inclusion should be recognised as more than just allowing girls (and non-binary, gender diverse students) to participate in STEM. Equity will only be achieved through the building of inclusive ecologies of belonging where all students can feel themselves as successful and valued STEM people (Wallace, 2018).

Identified barriers for high achieving students in rural settings to STEM trajectories have included material resources, transient teacher population, lack of teacher expertise, and parental expectations (Morris et al., 2019; Morton et al., 2018; Peterson et al., 2015; Quinn & Lyons, 2016). Rural students themselves may also recognise their position as disadvantaged (even if this is fictitious) and this may reduce both their sense of belonging and future aspirations in STEM fields (Elam et al., 2012; Morton et al., 2018; Sellar & Gale, 2011). Some of the students undergoing the RE programme in this study did situate their rural locality as a disadvantage but were very clear that this did not translate into understanding their own STEM ability as deficient, but rather an assessment that the system of schooling was an unfair playing field. Some of these students judged themselves (wrongly or rightly) as ill equipped to compete with their urban peers which could act as a barrier to future engagement with STEM subjects. Participants in this RE programme wrote about the lack of access to high-quality STEM classes and/or resources at their home schools and stated that they appreciated the opportunity to participate in the RE programme which they understood as a redress to some of the barriers they had previously faced. These RE students highlighted a lack of ‘like-minded’ students at their home school who were interested in STEM and this contributed to feelings of being an outsider, and this was particularly salient for girls participating in the programme.

Situated research

The BlueSky Science School (BSS) is a co-educational selective entry specialist science school situated in the suburbs of a large Australian city. It currently operates with a cohort of approximately 664-day students enrolled in Year 10–12. The Rural Exchange programme commenced in 2011. During 2018–2019, BSS offered the Rural Exchange programme to 30 rural participants from locations outside of the metropolitan area but within the state. The participating state rural schools are either contacted by BSS or schools may directly contact BSS. Participants apply to the programme, following a series of selection criteria and are evaluated on their passion for science. Once accepted, participants are asked to fill out forms that provide information about themselves and they are matched with homestay families from the BSS community. During the programme, BSS also organises excursions to ensure a broad city experience.

Cartography in-the-making

Using Barad’s “ethico-onto-episte-mology” (Barad, 2007, p. 90) framework allows me to productively understand the world through the cartographic assemblages generated within my research. I understand a cartography as “a mapping of power from a perspective, a creation of a topography, rather than a research finding that classifies pre-existent data as a prior and sedimented existence [emphasis in original]” (Wolfe, 2022, p. 1). Cartographic research allows non-objectivity as a reasonable research stance, utilising Haraway’s (1988, p. 581) stipulation that “Feminist objectivity means quite simply situated knowledge”. This theorisation asserts that any research apparatus that measures (this paper, research activity/questions, participants, and researcher) itself performatively creates the data that emerge during the research. That is, the data were not prior and thus the research ‘apparatus’ cannot be separated from the research outcomes produced. My white cisgender female body, my own affective experiences as a rural schoolgirl in a colonised country cannot, and should not, be separated or erased from my research endeavours. Barad (2007, p. 309) states, ‘phenomena are the ontological entanglement of objects and agencies of observation’ and that ‘the specificity of the entanglements is everything’ (Barad, 2014, p. 74). What is scrutinised in the research is the consequence of entanglements that matter to me, whilst the research itself interferes and elucidates new entanglements, and new consequences, that also matter, and for which I am responsible.

Braidotti (2018, pp. 212–213) describes cartographies as “the navigational tools that enable us to develop adequate understandings of our material life conditions…”. Cartographies are not representations of how the world is but rather a recording of the specificities of encounters that are orientated towards a sensitivity. My sensitivities in this paper are focussed on mapping the affections and feelings of belonging reported by these rural students, and how these feelings impact on their capacity to, regarding choice and aspirations to a STEM trajectory. Other patterns, that no doubt exist, are excluded. Cartographies articulate inclusions and the agencies of observation in situ, a mapping of particulars, from a perspective—a trace of affective movements and materialisations in-the-making. The apparatus of measurement, which includes me as the researcher, must be accounted for in the resulting data and data speculations.

Past participants of the Rural Exchange programme were contacted and invited to take part in an online questionnaire. The invitation was sent via both email and 94 posted letters that included a link to the questionnaire. Thirty-seven rural exchange participants accepted this invitation. Twenty-four of the participants identified as cisgender women and 13 identified as cisgender men (no other sex or gender was identified although this was an open-text option on the survey). All the responding participants had attended the Rural Exchange programme between 2013 and 2019.

The questionnaire consisted of 51 questions. This included demographic information as tick-the-box questions and open questions requiring text entry. The open-text questions were designed to understand the ways the Rural Exchange programme influenced participants’ choice and engagement with STEM subjects, university course preferences, and career field post-secondary school, with a focus on feelings. Open-text questions were used to differentiate participants’ responses within the demographic quantitative data and allow unsolicited themes to emerge.

The questionnaire was designed to elucidate how participants felt during their participation in the BSS RE programme, enabling the creation of an affective cartography.

Discussion: gendered figurations of STEM students

The major conclusion drawn from this research was that student involvement in the BSS Rural Exchange programme increased the sense of belonging felt by these particular students within STEM subject fields. The increased sense of belonging supported and affirmed further aspirations towards STEM trajectories of study, applied practice and future career. Student attachment and retention to the STEM field appeared as particularly salient for the participating female RE students. Women participants reported that the BSS RE programme increased their interest, focus and diligence in STEM subjects by increasing their belief in themselves through a sense of belonging, identification and acceptance as STEM people (Wallace, 2018). The RE participants became aware of the vast scope of STEM pathways including opportunities available in and beyond school. Through exposure to new STEM field experiences, they now recognised new desirable, viable and accessible career options. One girl demonstrated this increased understanding through her comment, “if I work hard my chosen career path isn't ‘unrealistic’”. Another girl stated that “there is so much more science to be found in the world, other than just what we learnt in general science at school (biology, chemistry, physics)”.

Conceptions of becoming a successful student

The BSS RE programme reportedly had a dramatic impact on correcting misconceptions of female participants about themselves; the trope that as rural girl students they were under-achievers unable to compete with city schools was dispelled. Girl students’ sense of belonging within a STEM community was increased as they came to understand that there existed ‘like-minded’ people with whom they could connect and engage with and who valued them as becoming STEM students. One girl participant stated that her take home message from the exchange programme was “That it's okay to be smart, and that there were other participants with similar interests to me”. Participants particularly relished learning within a cohort of motivated and diligent students who held similar STEM interests. Feelings of belonging within a STEM community were cited as having a lasting influence on student motivation when returning to their home school where they previously had often felt isolated. Students’ experience of increased feelings of belonging to a valued community also builds on other research findings that students’ “motivational beliefs are strongly influenced by their learning environment” (Lazarides & Watts, 2015, p. 51). A female student commented,

Being surrounded by such like-minded individuals who were passionate in what they were learning. Everyone wanted to do good, so the effort rubbed off against others, like me; who came from a school where you were deemed a teachers’ pet if you genuinely wanted to study for your own benefit.

The young men participants mostly described their take home message from their STEM experience at BSS as a realisation that they had to study hard to achieve their academic goals. They commented that they enjoyed the new STEM experiences offered and recognised that new STEM opportunities had opened up for them. A male participant commented on how “science is much more widely accepted and enjoyed around the world than I had thought”.

One student commented on how they had previously not thought of themselves as situationally disadvantaged until they experienced the resources available to the day students at BSS. The study found that many RE students’ expectations for their own academic success, as conventionally measured, was moderated through a perception that they were disadvantaged due to deficits of their home rural school when compared to BSS. That is, the students themselves came to recognise relational privilege. Although most participants felt optimistic about their future education and career choice—they also articulated anxieties felt due to perceived disadvantage, which included their rural locality and not wanting to or having the financial capacity to move to the city to attend university.

Some comments made by the female students regarding their home school included: “there weren’t necessarily those classes available”; “I'm not learning enough at my secondary school”; “I don't think I can quite get the marks”; and “I didn't receive any advice about my subject selection and should have done this differently”. Male participants were also tempered in their optimism with comments such as, “sometimes I feel anxious about what I’m going to do or get stressed about the work but I get on with it and it mostly turns out positively” and “it may be a hard job to get if I don’t get a good ATAR”.

The student responses in this research illustrate the importance of school learning environments and school community relations, to students’ academic engagement and trajectory. Only 51% of these high achieving rural female participants reported that they were happy at their home school compared to 92% of their male peers. In their comments, female participants mostly nominated the cause of their unhappiness as due to a perceived negative home school environment (teachers and other students) which they assessed as unsupportive of their desired field of learning (STEM). This theme cumulated in such comments as “I’m just wasting my time”. One female student articulated that they wanted to stay at BSS due to the positive learning environment they had now discovered.

Male participants commented that stress levels and bullying in their home school had impacted on their happiness, but overall, the male participants mostly enjoyed their whole schooling experience. High levels of previous belonging may be because heteronormative cisgender boys easily fit at school as well as in male-dominated STEM fields to which historically boys are deemed naturally entitled (Robnett & John, 2018). Schools are quite often spaces where the “organisational masculinities being constructed and defended by such processes [require] the exclusion of women [and non-gender conforming students]” (Connell, 2008, p. 242). Female respondents iterated that they felt an increased sense of belonging in STEM and happiness at BSS in comparison to their home schools. One girl commented, “I had finally found an inclusive environment that I felt at home in”. Male participants mostly commented on how attending BSS was a great experience and ‘fun’. The young women in this study overwhelmingly wanted first and foremost to belong (in school and in STEM), whilst the young men were seeking further enjoyment in a space where they already belonged. Friendships were significant for all the participants in this study, but academic achievement was reported as more important to the male participants.

Almost 42% of female participants reported that they had experienced gender discrimination at their home school whilst male participants did not report any discrimination. Female participants listed discrimination as occurring during physical education, by teachers, through comments about race and body, and jokes about girls’ intelligence that included tropes about academic limitations simply from being a girl. Female participants within this cohort were also much more likely than their male peers to have experienced feelings of vulnerability (54% girls, 25% boys). Girls named their vulnerability as both explicit and covert bullying by other students that included experience of non-belonging, racism, and judgements “for my interest in science”, and “learning new things”, and “Harassment which was passed off as banter by teachers and fellow ‘friends’”. These micro aggressions are all relational impacts that reduce female students’ feelings of belonging in STEM and at school. One female student commented, “I experienced many incidences including cyber bullying with my Facebook being trolled due to my acceptance into space camp”, which once more illustrated ways that girls are harassed for performing as intelligent (Wolfe, 2019). Male participants identified the cause of feeling vulnerable as threats of physical violence and feelings of isolation and non-belonging that caused anxiety.

The young women participants were also more likely to avoid educative experiences (46% female–38.5% male) due to feelings of discomfort and justified their avoidance as stemming from anxiety about the judgement of others which diminished their confidence. One female student wrote, “I was a bit nervous to apply for the BSS RE because I thought that my friends and other people would make fun of me for doing it”. Levels of avoidance by male participants were also high and boys also justified their avoidance of activities on concerns about the judgement of others, such as “I felt unsure about standing out and trying something new because not many other people might do it. I got picked on for being a bit of a try hard, so I sort of hid away from it”. These results affirm the importance of affective belonging relations at school and the notion of providing a safe and inclusive learning environment.

Most participants acknowledged that the BSS exchange impacted on their subject choices when they returned to their home schools. This elucidates how an affirming student experience of STEM can be linked to changing preferences and retention within the STEM field. The importance of such outreach programmes as this RE programme cannot be underestimated for these particular students’ STEM futures, at university or indeed in their home communities.

Aspiring careers

The importance of career counselling has been made clear in policy with the release of “A student focussed national career education strategy” (Australian Government, 2019), that notes “Career education is most effective when it is student-centred, and tailored to individual needs, interests and circumstances of school students”. The RE study found that despite this policy there was a lack of subject/career guidance undertaken with these Year 10 students. Over 58% of female participants and over 42% of males had not received careers advice. Participants who had received advice also reported that the advice received was vague and non-specific. The experience undergone at BSS assisted these young high achieving rural students to articulate a specific study trajectory leading towards a specific STEM career.

Rural student aspirations and awareness-raising programmes have been considered by policymakers as important since the 1990s, as rural perspectives are acknowledged as valuable for Australia’s future. Quinn and Lyons (2016) have previously argued the importance of rural communities’ input into scientific debates including climate change, food and water security, sustainability, and energy supply. Quinn and Lyons (2016) further claim that rural students who engage with STEM fields (at university) were less likely to have studied advanced mathematics or physics in secondary school compared with their city peers. The reduced participation by rural students in deemed high value STEM subjects has occurred even when students report similar STEM career aspirations as their city counterparts, which raises concerns about access to capacity-building resources. Inequity is created when mathematics and physics are gatekeeping subjects to access highly paid STEM career trajectories, but access and participation opportunities are filtered through complex systems of limited resources and affective negotiations. Limited participation by disadvantaged groups of students is not a reflection of an essentialised capacity (Australian Academy of Science, 2019; Thomson et al., 2016) but might just be due to lack of affirming and joyful STEM experiences (cf. Wolfe, 2021) that occur due to a scarcity of resources (expert teachers, facilities, subject offerings, gender stereotypes and allowances, socio-economic factors).

The schooling practice of not offering gateway subjects, due to a lack of resources, low enrolment or deeming them unsuitable for interested students, creates inequity and has consequence. The consequence is that young people’s capacity to, that is often a joyous engagement with STEM fields, may be limited and is a delimiter for Australia’s future flourishing.


Educational research continues to report a significant negative difference in the measured educational achievements of regional, rural, and remote students (Halsey, 2018) compared with their urban counterparts. Fewer Australian rural students also attend university than their urban peers (Fray et al., 2020; Wilson et al., 2013). Australian students’ aspirations in careers and life have also been under researched, despite the recognition that aspiration is reported as essential for students to create a meaningful future for themselves (Sellar & Gale, 2011). More recent attention on aspirations has focussed on rural students’ university trajectories (c.f. Gore et al., 2017; Holmes et al., 2018; Patfield et al., 2022) but wider research is required regarding student orientations and affections towards various subject fields through aspiration emerging from subject/school affective experiences (cf. Mills, et al., 2021).

Research has previously shown that specialised out-of-school programs “positively impact children’s STEM understanding and reach underserved populations” (Ihrig et al., 2018, p. 25). The reported experiences undergone in the BSS Rural Exchange programme mapped through this paper is one such programme and illustrated a deeply affirming affective experience for the participant students in more than their engagement with STEM.

The research further illustrates Sellar and Gale’s (2011, p. 129) claim that by focussing on student capacity to, as in this paper, research can draw “attention to how social position and access to resources mediate what ends are felt to be possible and desirable [my emphasis]”. More students could be given the opportunity to experience quality and engaging STEM education through specialist exchange programmes. Programmes such as the BSS Rural Exchange programme should be expanded for marginalised students. It is well documented that occupational aspirations are shaped through student exposure (Hudson & Hudson, 2019), knowledge of, and positive experiences within (STEM) fields (Peterson et al., 2015) and this is supported in the outcomes from my limited study. The RE programme is an exemplar in addressing national calls concerning the critical need for increasing a diverse and highly qualified STEM community that is inclusive of, and values rural and regional (girl) students’ input in Australia’s future.

I iterate the proposition that a lack of well-resourced and joyous educative experiences limits young peoples’ aspiration for both life and work. I consider this in light of growing inequities in educational outcomes in Australia between students living in rural and regional localities and their urban peers (Halsey, 2018). This gap has been further accentuated during the global pandemic, and more recent climate crises catastrophes of displacement due to fire and flood. Female, BIPOC, LGTBQI + , culturally and linguistically diverse, neurodivergent, differently abled, low socio-economic, regional and remote students, in their multiple entangled manifestations, have often been affectively excluded from even considering the breadth of STEM aspirations. The ecological processes of reductive categorisation in school can create a sense of felt non-belonging (Wolfe, 2021). In considering the importance of experience to growing aspiration, I highlight that currently career advice is “rare or do[es] not occur” (Halsey, 2018, p. 57), or occurs too late for students to follow their career interests (Wilson et al., 2013). The data created within this focussed project demonstrate how a particular rural exchange specialist science programme supported some rural students, increasing their capacity to, through an opportunity for exposure to broad and joyous experiences in STEM that created passionate attachments, a sense of belonging, and imagination to see themselves as valued and successful STEM people.