Updated: 5 days ago
Promoting diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) in STEM is vital for innovation and progress. At STEM Alliance, we believe that community engagement can help to break down barriers and dispel stereotypes about who belongs in STEM. For any organisation or business wanting to elevate its DEI efforts, community engagement can be a powerful tool to add to your kete (basket) of initiatives. But it’s vital to understand what makes STEM community engagement successful, and what pitfalls to avoid.
At the recent International Conference for Women Engineers and Scientists (ICWES19), the STEM Alliance team facilitated a workshop on creating successful STEM engagement programmes. In this article, we share highlights from our workshop and insights into how you can apply these tips in your own organisation.
Understanding what success looks like
The first step in creating a successful STEM engagement programme is understanding what makes it truly effective. Through our years of research and experience, we have identified four overarching principals for effective STEM engagement:
Purposeful objectives: have clearly defined programme outcomes that are specific and relevant to the student/community you want to engage. What does your community need? What do you aim to achieve through your STEM programme and what would success look like?
Mātauranga: acknowledge that there are different ways of knowing and learning and each student brings with them a wealth of prior knowledge. Find ways to work with your community to build new knowledge and innovations together.
Cultural inclusion: have respect and awareness for all cultures and backgrounds. Give considerations to how you can make your programme as accessible and inclusive as possible for everyone.
Two-way communication: practice active and empathetic communication. Keeping channels of communication open enables partnerships to grow through collaboration and dialogue.
It’s critical to recognise that students are at the centre of the STEM engagement programme, but they are not an island. Creating longer-term change around student attitudes and behaviours towards STEM requires investing in their families and surrounding community, whom have a big influence on student aspirations and choices. Program providers also need to work alongside the policy makers (fund holders and decision-makers, eg. senior management) to ensure that their programme has the funding and support to grow.
Taking a values-based approach
One of the key takeaways from our workshop was the importance of adopting a values-based approach. To create a successful STEM engagement programme, consider the following:
Practice self-reflection to identify your values and strengths: Recognise the unique strengths and resources you and your organisation can bring to the table. Understanding what drives you helps you see where you can make the biggest impact.
Know your community: Think about who you can work with and what their needs and aspirations are, particularly if working with underrepresented communities. What can they offer your programme and how might they like to be engaged?
Define your collective goal: building an aspirational and purposeful objective for your programme helps to provide a common direction for you and your partners to work together towards. This sets the boundaries for engagement and is something you can all come back to when things become uncertain.
Introduction to the Theory of Change
For organisations looking to kickstart or refine their engagement programme, the Theory of Change framework serves as an accessible template. It helps organisations outline the steps required to achieve their goals systematically, by clearly identifying the inputs, activities, outputs, outcomes and impacts that they expect their programme to achieve. This logical framework encourages strategic thinking and ensures that your programme aligns with your desired outcomes.
The Theory of Change is also a useful tool that can be applied to existing programmes – you can map out your current STEM engagement activities into the framework and see where there may be gaps or inconsistencies in your logic model.
Workshop successfully creates space for open discussions & creative thinking
After working through a series of self-reflection and group brainstorming activities, workshop participants created a high-level theory of change for a programme or initiative that might address a STEM equity issue in their community.
Some groups looked specifically at the role of STEM engagement in their community – for example, creating a mobile science lab to tour rural areas, providing mentoring programmes to ease student transitions from small communities to university, or linking up ‘niche’ science outreach programmes for greater collective impact.
Other creative ideas included creating a children’s book to depict the adventures of diverse STEM heroes, as well as advocating for greater paid parental leave flexibility to retain more women in the workforce.
Participants found the workshop content to be informative and thought-provoking, giving them a chance to reflect on what engagement they had seen or done, and how they could contribute through their personal mahi. They particularly enjoyed the chance to connect with like-minded people and share ideas in an open discussion.
“I would love for my [Women in Engineering] ambassadors to get this sort of training on what successful engagement looks like, and simple things like ensuring you’re talking to students in the right way... It’s so valuable” – Ashleigh Fox, Project Manager, Women in Engineering, Waipapa Taumata Rau University of Auckland.
Want to find out more?
STEM Alliance has published a book, “A practical guide to STEM community engagement in Aotearoa New Zealand”, to support organisations to develop more effective engagement programmes. This comprehensive resource offers practical insights, research-backed strategies, examples and tools to support programme development and implementation.
You can also get in touch with the STEM Alliance team for specialised support, advice and training workshops. We seek to collaborate with partners to increase effective STEM engagement and support equitable learning opportunities for all learners.