Updated: Oct 5
In May 2023, Ōtāhuhu College hosted a 2-day STEM Expo which has built new connections between science professionals and south Auckland youth – creating a memorable learning experience and opening students up to different careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).
The STEM Expo was organised by Ms Qistina, the STEM Navigator, and featured a variety of hands-on activities and demonstrations from local STEM organisations. Over 500 students from Tangaroa College and Ōtāhuhu College participated and 11 exhibitor stalls were in attendance. Students had the opportunity to engage in fun activities across a wide range of STEM topics, including software engineering, coding, robotics, engineering, volcanology, anthropology, physiology, biological sciences, food science and acoustic engineering. They also had the chance to meet with STEM professionals and ask them questions about their careers.
The STEM Alliance Aotearoa team supported Ōtāhuhu College with an outcomes evaluation plan, to assess what value this event could offer students, teachers and stallholders, and how it could contribute to the school’s wider STEM engagement goals. Here’s a summary of our findings.
Foundations for a successful STEM Expo
From the outset, organisers had a clear objective for the STEM Expo to increase student awareness of STEM careers and subjects. The event was open to all secondary school science students. There was a particular focus on engaging students who were undecided or ‘on the fence’ about taking science subjects in future years. By offering a taste of the wide applications of STEM, it was hoped that the event would inspire the students and encourage a more positive attitude towards STEM subjects.
The groundwork for this change must start well before the STEM Expo. Teachers were encouraged to ‘prime’ students by initiating discussions about STEM careers and subject choices in the days leading up to the Expo. These initial conversations are important to build up interest and get students thinking about the connection between science subject selection and exciting science careers.
Making it fun
The key to success for this event was making it fun, welcoming, and engaging for students. The Ōtāhuhu College prefects team worked with Ms Qistina to create a student-centric experience. This was done by hiring a photo booth to reward students who engaged in 3 or more exhibitor activities, a student-led weightlifting competition, music focused on amping the environment, and leadership from the prefects to encourage their peers to participate. Every stall holder was asked to offer a hands-on activity that students could engage in for 10-15 minutes and were given a stamp to use when a student has finished the activity. Each cohort of students was allocated 50-70 minutes to make their way around, which gave students time to wander around and participate in multiple activities.
Feedback from students collected on the day was overwhelmingly positive with many ratings of 8–10 out of 10. A common theme was how fun the STEM Expo was. It was evident that the fun environment was highly valued and contributed to student engagement with the STEM stalls:
"10/10 - it was very fun and unexpected. Hoping to experience more."
“It was fun to try all the different things and stalls”
“A great fun way of learning”
“Amazing, very positive & encouraging for the future”
“We should do this more often, this is really fun!”
“Love loved it! The leaders were amazing as well as the workshops”
Every stall was mentioned at least once in the feedback, indicating the value of having a wide range of STEM topics represented to engage different interests. Not all students will be interested in every topic, but with a good variety in attendance, there was something for everyone. Making a STEM Expo diverse and inclusive is especially important for those who are undecided about pursuing STEM subjects and “don’t know what they don’t know”.
One student’s key takeaway was “I got advice to stay curious.” This indicates a positive interaction between a student and a STEM professional even for a student who may not have had specific STEM goals or aspirations.
Easy and rewarding experiences for all
In addition to making science interesting for students, the STEM Expo also had a positive influence on teachers and industry partners.
Teachers surveyed after the event reported that the Expo allowed them to connect with people they normally wouldn’t meet, and most were able to learn something new. All teachers said they would recommend the STEM Expo to other students and teachers.
Stall holders also reported enjoyment of the event, with many responding that they learnt something new, connected with people they wouldn’t normally meet and were able to represent their profession or organisation well. Stall holders all strongly agreed that the event was well organised and easy to be a part of, which made it easier for STEM professionals to participate.
“Great event, fully support running it every year to a wider audience – well done!” – Industry partner
Bridging the gap between science enjoyment and subject selections
Feedback from students indicated that the STEM Expo had a mostly positive impact on their enjoyment of science. Students were exposed to new careers they didn’t know of before and many expressed a desire to participate in a STEM Expo or similar events in the future.
Interestingly, despite the high levels of enjoyment and satisfaction with the STEM Expo, year 10 and 11 students reported little to no change in their intended science subject selections for future years. Those who were already pursuing a science pathway were still interested in doing so. Those who had not been considering science pathways were still unsure.
Ms Qistina has reported that her concerted efforts to link science subjects to careers may be slowly paying off though, with up to three times more students approaching her with questions about subject selections this year. Her follow-up discussions with students identified other barriers that are impacting students’ choices, including the perceptions that STEM was “too hard”, there was “too much writing”, and learning new scientific words and terminology is difficult.
The learnings from this evaluation highlight the important role that teachers have as facilitators of STEM learning, and how they have a significant influence on a student’s attitudes towards a subject. These negative attitudes can, in turn, influence student confidence and future aspirations.
Recommendations for fostering longer-term impact
Making STEM fun, relevant and practical for students helps them connect the science taught in classrooms with real careers and science applications. A STEM Expo can be a fantastic outreach tool to support this mahi, but it needs to be integrated into a supportive and responsive programme of science teaching that meets the student’s needs.
To further embed the positive outcomes from an event like the STEM Expo, the STEM Alliance recommends that science teachers follow up with conversations about science careers and explicitly link the STEM activities students were interested in with topics that would be learnt in senior secondary sciences. Stallholders can also contribute by providing age-appropriate resources or offering follow-up sessions, to deepen the relationship with the school from a one-off event to a longer-term engagement.
For more information about organising or evaluating a STEM Expo in your community, contact STEM Alliance or check out this resource from NZASE to get started: