By Guest Author 27/01/2016 9

Sam Hall-McMaster & Jennifer Palmer

In July 2014, the New Zealand Government released the strategic plan for science in society, A Nation of Curious Minds, which states “New Zealand needs an increasingly STEM-competent workforce for a more innovation-focused society”.

Despite this need, the number of year 11-13 students enrolled in science related courses has gradually declined. This is clearly problematic. We want greater STEM competence in our society and yet we are struggling to effectively engage young people in these disciplines. It is in light of this dilemma that we wish to open a conversation around three key questions:
1) why it is important to engage young people in STEM,
2) what are some of the barriers to engagement and
3) how might we overcome those barriers and achieve the engagement we need?

Why is it important to engage young people in STEM?

The first reason is that youth STEM engagement is a good way to boost scientific literacy. Research by Bornmann and Mutz (2015) examined the number of science articles cited between the years 1650 and 2012 as a proxy for scientific output. They found that the average increase in citations between 1925 and 2012 was 8-9% per year. According to the authors, this equates to a doubling of scientific output about every 9 years.

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Clearly we live in an increasingly scientific world. By virtue of an increasing STEM presence, we should feel obligated to help people understand these subjects from an early age. This is especially the case because an increase in scientific output comes with good and bad, with science that is accurate and robust, and science that is downright misleading. We have a responsibility to engage and educate young people in STEM so they can separate accurate from fictitious claims and make evidence-based decisions in their lives.

Another reason we should be interested in youth STEM engagement is to help young people make more informed career choices. In particular, the earlier a person’s experience with STEM, the more data they are going to be able to gather to decide if STEM is really for them. We mentioned earlier that there is a demand for people with STEM-competence in New Zealand but that’s also the case in other parts of the world. For example, this graph shows the projected growth of STEM and non-STEM employment in the US from 2008-2018. As you can see from the bars on the right, the projected growth was 17% in STEM subjects compared with about 10% in non-STEM subjects.

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We need to foster youth engagement in STEM not because we want to persuade anyone and everyone to it but because we have the opportunity to connect young people with intrinsic STEM passions they might not realise they have. Doing so will help us to meet the STEM demand in an ethical way. In other words, it’s not about persuasion. It’s about giving people agency. Early engagement in STEM gives the individual more data to make the decision that’s best for them.

What are the barriers to engaging young people in STEM?

STEM disciplines clearly have some negative stereotypes. If you ask the average young person to draw a scientist, you will probably get something like these:


That’s right, male, either balding or with hair that defies gravity, wearing a lab coat, holding some explosive green compound, and clearly not following proper safety procedures. These sorts of stereotypes – that all scientists wear lab coats, technology is for geeks, all engineers wear overalls, and mathematicians spend their days writing equations on a blackboard – don’t do much to enkindle a sense of passion for young people. Indeed, they do the very opposite.

The second barrier to youth engagement is that STEM doesn’t seem to have a ‘unique value proposition’. The unique value proposition is an important component of any business model. Silicon Valley entrepreneur Steve Blank defines it as “a single, clear compelling message that states why you are different and worth buying”. If your business doesn’t have any unique value or that unique value isn’t clear to potential customers, you don’t have a business. We don’t often think about STEM in business terms but maybe we should because at the moment it isn’t crystal clear to young people why they want to be engaged in STEM over the myriad of other things they could be doing.

Another way to think about this barrier is through the lens of signal detection theory. When looking for a signal, signal detection theory says that the signal to noise ratio is really important. For example, it would be easier for a referee to spot a football foul if there were only two players on the field compared with many players clustered in one spot. Why? Because the signal is very strong relative to the noise. Young people today are surrounded by noise. There’s greater access to information than ever before, bringing more diverse opportunities than ever before. The amount of noise has gone up but we haven’t cranked up the STEM signal to compete with it.

Consequently, it may be very hard for young people to make sense of why they might want to get involved in STEM and what unique value that would offer them as opposed to other disciplines.

The third challenge in youth STEM engagement is getting balance between theory and application in STEM education just right.Screen Shot 2016-01-26 at 11.08.27 AM

In order for students to understand scientific ideas, they need a strong foundation of knowledge – they need theory. But they also need application to keep interested, and see the bigger picture. To quote Millar and Osborne (1998, p. 13):

“… it is impossible to see the whole building if we focus too closely on the bricks. Yet, without a change of focus, it is impossible to see whether you are looking at St Paul’s Cathedral or a pile of bricks … In the same way, an over concentration on the detailed content of science may prevent students appreciating why Dalton’s ideas about atoms, or Darwin’s ideas about natural selection, are among the most powerful and significant pieces of knowledge we possess.”

In other words, without the theory bricks of STEM, students cannot piece together the body of STEM knowledge. We need theory. But if we focus only on these bricks, we have nothing more than a seemingly useless pile of facts, and no interest or understanding of how it applies to the world around us. We also need application.

How can we overcome the barriers?

First we need to break down the negative stereotypes.

Michelle Dickinson, “Nano Girl”.

We need opportunities for STEM practitioners to engage with young people, especially young women so that they can see STEM practitioners are real people, and that STEM is a way of learning about the world, not a static set of facts.

The efficacy of this approach gains some support from the psychological literature. At a broad level, this field has shown that exposure can be effective in reducing group stereotypes (e.g. Ramasubramanian, 2015). There are a number of ways to achieve exposure to STEM practitioners and reduce the bias against them, such as facilitating personal interactions with scientists and publicity for salient role models like Michelle Dickinson.

We also emphasise the necessity of using social media to expose young people to STEM research and innovation. Social media platforms have become a major source of information for youth and are deeply embedded in the lives of our generation. Through social media, STEM practitioners can give youth a window into their research in a manner that is highly accessible to youth, easy to disperse and reduces the motivational barriers to engagement. Put another way, videos of cool experiments alongside photos of lab breakthroughs are much more exciting than pallid career leaflets.

Secondly, let’s give STEM a unique value proposition. What does STEM offer young people that they can’t get anywhere else? It could be something like this:

“STEM offers you a framework for understanding the world, creative and critical methods of discovery, and the ability to contribute to the health and wellbeing of others.”

This is not necessarily the best, only or most complete value proposition. But we need to think about the key points of value STEM can offer young people if we want to engage them.

Finally, how can we achieve that balance between theory and application in STEM education? One way might be to consider things from the perspective of Flow Theory (see Csikszentmihalyi, 2014). Whether you know it or not we’re sure many of you have experienced flow before, which is a state of being the zone, so absorbed in what you were doing without any awareness of the time passing by. One of the critical characteristics of flow is a balance between challenges and skills, which is shown in this graph:

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If the skill level of the individual is high but the level of challenge is too low, people get bored – it’s too easy. Conversely, if the challenge is too high for the skill level, people become anxious – it’s too hard. In the context of STEM education, it’s important we try to match the challenge of what we teach young people about STEM to their actual ability. This sweet spot right, where flow is achieved, is likely to maximise engagement.

Now that we’ve covered some potential approaches for engaging young people in STEM, let’s turn to some of the things already being done and what we can learn from them. In particular, we would like to introduce the Sir Paul Callaghan Eureka Awards as a case example and analyse some of the elements that make it effective in engaging young people.

To provide some background, Eureka is a speech competition for young science orators. It began in 2012 and four national competitions on, one of its key aims is to foster STEM engagement. Each year, high school students, university students – and from this year primary school students as well – participate in workshops to bolster their science communication skills. High school and university entrants compete in regional competitions throughout the country from which a selection of exceptional young STEM communicators compete in the Wellington National finals. Each presenter has 12 minutes to provide a compelling case for any area of STEM that can contribute to New Zealand’s social, economic or environmental wellbeing, to an esteemed judging panel. The presentations conclude with an awards ceremony at Government House, with leading scientists from across the country. Entrants also become part of the alumni group, which meets annually to engage in discussions with major divisions of government.

What elements of Eureka make it effective in engaging young people?

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The first is empowerment. Like all of us, young people want to be affirmed as smart and capable. Eureka provides that affirmation in terms of public exposure for the presenter, prizes and the opportunity for on-going intellectual contribution through the alumni group. Critically, Eureka itself is a statement that the voices of young New Zealanders matter. That young people do not have to wait to make a difference. That we can speak up, provide solutions, and make a contribution to solving the problems facing our country.

The second reason Eureka works for young people is that it provides role models. One of the major benefits of the networking opportunities during Eureka is that it connects young people interested in STEM with new role models. Don’t get us wrong, people like Isaac Newton are great, we are in awe of them, and admire them, but we don’t try to be like them because they are simply too different from us. Eureka is really good at connecting young people to scientists who are not that different from themselves. And that’s exactly what we need to do if we want young people of today to become the STEM practitioners of tomorrow.

The third element of Eureka that helps engage young people is the emphasis on diverse skill sets. Because science communication draws on so many different disciplines, Eureka doesn’t isolate STEM from young people’s other interests. For high school students, it combines many subjects they may be studying concurrently, such as Science and English or Mathematics and Drama. Many university students participate in Eureka before they have given a university seminar (which usually has a generic presentation style) allowing them to be more creative. In other words, it recognises that young people have other interests and allows them to use those interests to produce something persuasive, eloquent and remarkable.

To tie everything together, engaging young people in STEM subjects is important for an innovation-focused society, to boost scientific literacy and to allow young people to make the career choices that are right for them. Some of the barriers to engagement include the negative stereotypes surrounding STEM, the lack of a unique value proposition and the difficulty of balancing theory and application in STEM education. Potential ways to address these barriers are to break down stereotypes by exposing young people to STEM practitioners, to provide a STEM value proposition and to try and promote flow experiences in the classroom. We looked at the Eureka speech competition as a case example of promoting STEM engagement, identifying empowerment, role models, and appreciating diverse skill sets as key elements.

We aren’t saying these are all the answers but hopefully, we’ve left you with some things think about as we tackle the challenge of youth STEM engagement together.


Bornmann, L., & Mutz, R. (2015). Growth rates of modern science: A bibliometric analysis based on the number of publications and cited references. Journal of the Association for Information Science and Technology.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2014). Flow. In Flow and the Foundations of Positive Psychology (pp. 227-238). Springer Netherlands.

Langdon, D., McKittrick, G., Beede, D., Khan, B., & Doms, M. (2011). STEM: Good Jobs Now and for the Future. ESA Issue Brief# 03-11. US Department of Commerce.

Millar, R., & Osborne, J. F. (Eds.). (1998). Beyond 2000: Science Education for the Future. London: King’s College London.

Ramasubramanian, S. (2015). Using celebrity news stories to effectively reduce racial/ethnic prejudice. Journal of Social Issues, 71(1), 123-138.

Featured image: Flickr CC, epSos .de.

9 Responses to “How do we engage young people in STEM?”

  • Nice blog. However most of this was said back in the 1980s, when I was a young woman choosing a career in science. I think what is missing is a steady career path, especially for women juggling a career with family. The competitive nature of grant-funded science puts off a number of young people, who cannot see a clear, stable path in science, outside trying to gain tenure in academia. Look at the recent redundancies in some of the CRIs. Add to that the feeling that scientific evidence no longer holds weight – think of the PM on BBC TV, discounting Mike Joy’s evidence that NZ is not Clean and Green by saying he could find a scientist with an opinion that agreed with him. Scientists find it hard to be whistle blowers in a world of business first. I wouldn’t encourage my granddaughter into a research science career any more.

  • Just as a general principle I’m all for people, young and old, developing an interest and understanding of STEM issues. To read the despairing tales of public understanding of science on this blog, others have reasons for thinking that way too. To be more positive, gaining understanding and wondering at the real world is an important part of life. But let’s not think that with New Zealand’s spending on science and technology, and in consequence the life that working in STEM fields here can offer, that this is an attractive career choice. I’m sure the authors of the piece didn’t mean it, but it comes across as a cunning plan to use a sales pitch to provide such a massive oversupply of workers that future administrations might say “Might as well set all these low cost sciency types to work. Maybe we can get good deal from overseas.” Unfortunately such a cunning plan will appeal to politicians as very cheap and attracting almost zero blowback when nothing happens.

  • Steady career paths may be hard to find in science, particularly if you are talking about academic or government positions, but don’t forget that STEM also includes Engineering and Technology, both areas where steady career paths can be found.

    I think one of the problems with engaging people in STEM is that most of those doing the engaging are those who have always liked doing science and mathematics from an early age. So how do we understand those that don’t feel this way.
    As a comparison, it is often said that financial literacy is important, but how many of us could imagine being engaged to get excited about finance?
    Perhaps we have to accept that some people will never enjoy science (or technology, engineering and mathematics) the way we do?

  • Thank you all for engaging in this discussion with us – it’s clearly a very complex issue! I think you raise a good point about the uncertainty inherent in research science, Jean. As a recent Neuroscience graduate, soon to embark on their PhD, this is a consideration that often plays on my mind. It is a very real issue that should not be downplayed. In response to this, I think Michael raises some excellent points in saying that we aren’t just talking about science here and that other STEM domains tend to have more inherent stability. I would add a personal stance that embracing some uncertainty is a worthy price to do something you love over a secure career that you loathe! Regarding your comments David, I agree that gaining an understanding of the world is an important part of life. STEM education is one way to promote that understanding, a point we make the point we make through the section on scientific literacy. In regards to your reading of a sales pitch mentality, please allow me to redress your interpretation. First, an important argument in the piece is that the purpose of early STEM exposure should be to provide the individual with more experience and information to facilitate autonomous decision-making. This differs from other conversations around STEM demand, which often have undertones of twisting people against their will. Similarly, a unique value proposition for STEM is not about manipulation. Rather, it’s about making it clear to young people what STEM has to offer in a context in which there is lots of information competing for their attention. It can and should be truthful. In addition, once individuals are clear on the value of STEM – which might be achieved through promoting a unique value proposition or other means – they should decide for themselves whether they wish to pursue STEM further. To me, this resonates with Michael’s comment that some people will never get excited about STEM in the same way we do, and nor should they! There are many other things that are equally as valuable. Best wishes and thank you all for reading.

  • Subsequent to reading this blog I spent time reading the Curious Minds Report. Certainly a useful report, wonderful that progress is on the way.

    I think it is impossible to overstate that we scientists must learn to speak (and video, blog, tweet, dance, paint…) with passion and enthusiasm about science. And we must learn to tell stories. Watch both Cosmos series, Neil de Grasse Tyson and Carl Sagan both tell the stories of the scientists as well of the science. All of the best communicators tell stories. We must too. Tell our own stories and make a point of telling stories for our audience. What I mean is, I’m male, if I was talking to young women about science I would introduce successful women scientists and tell their stories as well as my own. Talk to our audience’s interests. That’s just good manners.

    Another point I have is to have a nation-wide communication contest: best speech, best poem, best short film, best song and best art work. Seek to enthuse the artists into science (Siouxsie Wiles does a wonderful job of this). An additional thought is that we talk inclusively of STEAM based opportunities; not just employment but a broader New Zealand culture, enjoyment and participation. Life. It is not just rock-star scientists, encourage the part-timers. Speak positively, my area is environmental science and as much as I can I tell stories of business folk profitably mitigating climate change. Just look at the wind energy industry in the Manawatu.

    Like previous commentators here, I think the market for STEM graduates is overstated.

    I agree with the report’s authors, education – particularly primary and intermediate school education – is critical and at present poorly done. Last term one of my international students expressed her surprise. Her daughter had been taught at an international school in Singapore, with science an integral part of the programme; when they transferred here, they found little science in her class. On reflection, both of my children went through primary school with pretty much no science. It is a little better at Intermediate, where science was an option.

    On the subject of community engagement I am much more positive, there is plenty happening but it is focused on STEM bound students and practitioners, and there is little for citizens. Just look at the latest Royal Society News Letter. Move onto STEAM and encourage artists and amateurs.

    To finish, the most important thing is for us scientists to tell positive engaging stories and to build a culture in New Zealand that supports this.

  • This is a very interesting conversation, I’m still thinking about many of the points that people have made.
    One thing worth adding is that while I don’t think everyone will find science engaging, it would be useful if everyone had a basic level of science, and one way to promote this would be to show how useful a knowledge of science is.
    In the same way that most people understand a basic level of finance is useful, then perhaps science promotion which demonstrates on showing people the advantages of knowing some science – e.g. being able to spot dubious health treatments, understand basic nutrition and understand scientific related debates?

  • I’ve got a student who’s currently writing a report on engagement with & communication about science – just sent her the link to this conversation as I think it provides some very valuable talking points that could be worked into her narrative.