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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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?
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.