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Navigating the Common Pitfalls of STEM Engagement Programmes

Updated: Sep 25, 2023

Community engagement can be a fantastic tool for inspiring young people into STEM careers and highlighting the importance of STEM in society, but programmes often take time, money and resources to deliver. Your investment in building a programme, connecting with teachers, and arranging school visits should leave a lasting positive impression, not one that causes students to switch off from STEM. This is particularly important when resources are limited, and you need to be able to demonstrate impact to sustain your programme.

It's therefore crucial to be aware of potential pitfalls that can derail engagement efforts. In this article, STEM Alliance shares some of the common pitfalls we have observed, and tips to avoid them.

1. Speaking at the wrong level

One of the most common missteps is failing to connect with students on their level. An external STEM role model often has a very limited window to make a good impression and capture students’ attention. Whether your group is too large, too young, or too old for your content, not tailoring your approach to your audience can lead to disengagement. It's essential to adapt your tone, message and activities to resonate with the students you're trying to reach.

Sometimes, programmes and STEM role models can also overload students with too much information. This can overwhelm and discourage learners. It's important to strike a balance between sharing valuable content and allowing room for exploration and critical thinking. Building rapport with students and understanding their backgrounds can help you find this balance.

2. Not understanding your community’s needs

Even the most engaging content and relatable role model won’t necessarily find success if the programme fails to align with the needs of your schools and communities. Teachers are busy and often under pressure to deliver curriculum learning and assessments, so they are on the lookout for programmes and resources that fit the curriculum level they teach. Effective engagement requires providing value and relevance to educators and their students.

Not sure if your idea fits a curriculum need? Ask a teacher or find a science teacher’s association to connect with and bounce your ideas. Co-designing a programme with teachers, for teachers (and students) is likely to be more successful than going it alone.

3. Just being boring

One fast way to lose the interest of your target audience is by simply being boring. It's essential to think about what excites and captivates the students you're engaging with. Always try to find out as much as you can about your audience (collaborating with teachers is key!) - find a hook that will draw students in and think about how you deliver your programme in a way that will inspire and intrigue them to stay engaged.

Creating interactive, hands-on activities, showing videos and photos, rotating different speakers or initiating lively discussions and games with students can go a long way in making STEM outreach more engaging and memorable.

4. Whizz, bang, pop - but where's the science?

While flashy experiments and explosions can be enticing, these demonstrations are not always very effective if they lack a clear connection to science and STEM. By not explicitly linking back to the underlying science, these flashy experiences can leave students confused or not truly understanding the potential and relevance of the science they are seeing.

It's essential to integrate knowledge into your outreach programme, for example, by showing how these fun experiences might relate to applications of STEM in the ‘real world’ and career pathways. Depending on the audience, you could also link science subject choices in school to future careers to draw very clear connections between the exciting science experience and the student’s learning journeys.

5. Not planning your programme for success and sustainability

Neglecting the practical aspects of programme implementation, such as logistics and budgets, can hinder your efforts. It may be important to adapt a programme depending on different audiences and locations. For example, after-school programmes have very different logistical requirements to in-school, so you may want to consider things like giving kai to fuel the students and also how accessible the location is for students to get to.

A well-thought-out plan that considers these factors is essential for the success of any STEM engagement initiative. There are many tools and templates that can be used to help plan out a successful engagement programme.

6. Not collecting feedback and evaluating success

How can you know your engagement efforts are having a positive (or negative) impact, if you don’t collect the data? Effective collection of data and feedback is critical to a successful STEM engagement programme, but it can be hard to capture and time-consuming to analyse and report on. Many impactful programmes may struggle to grow and be sustainable if they cannot demonstrate the value that they offer.

Finding an evaluation methodology that suits your programme and audience is important. Surveys are a common method, for example, but not useful if you are engaging with young children or those with lower literacy levels. Other methods might be more effective but time or resource-heavy, and programmes need to balance the amount of effort required for data collection with the value that they will expect to get from that data.

Learn more about what success looks like

Successful STEM engagement programmes put students at the centre, with a strong focus on purposeful objectives, collaboration, communication and alignment with community needs. Programmes require careful planning, adaptability, and evaluation and monitoring to ensure ongoing success.

For more resources on what successful engagement looks like, check out STEM Alliance’s “A practical guide to STEM community engagement in Aotearoa New Zealand”. This comprehensive resource offers 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. We seek to collaborate with partners to increase effective STEM engagement and support equitable learning opportunities for all learners.


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