Top tips for engaging young people with STEM

Beth Probert from the WISE Young Professionals’ Board shares her top tips on how to engage young people with STEM. 

The Next Generation 

Research by the charity Education and Employers (E & E) suggests that the career aspirations of young people in the UK don’t align with the careers that will be available to them. The report suggests that ‘five times as many young people want to work in art, culture, entertainment and sport as there are jobs available.’ While this may not seem like a major issue, this disconnect will bring about a number of problems in years to come, and I don’t just mean job dissatisfaction. 

For example, issues like Climate Change are fast approaching critical points which, once passed, will have irreversible effects on our planet. If we don’t have enough young people right now that are interested in joining STEM industries such as conservationism and engineering, then we will not have the future workforce we need in order to come up with solutions to help us save the planet. 

Even today we need a much larger STEM workforce, and we have done for some years. Towards the end of last year, the IET released a report where 1 in 2 UK Engineering and Technology firms said they were concerned about the shortage of engineers in the UK and how it will affect their businesses. There is a large skills gap in the UK, with relatively few people, especially minorities, seeking careers in STEM industries. This is a particularly poignant statement today, on the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, as STEM industries still have very few women in their workforces which contributes further to this skills gap. Based on E & E’s report, it seems like this gap is likely to grow in future years. 

This disconnect brings to light two glaring questions: Why are so few young people aspiring to join STEM based careers, and what can we do to tackle the disconnect? 

The Attenborough Effect 

Science communication is a key tool that should be used to engage young people with STEM. David Attenborough, one of the world’s most famous science communicators, showed the power of this tool through his TV series Blue Planet II. During this series, he encouraged and urged viewers to consider their impact on the environment and reduce their plastic consumption and this lead to a lot of people in the UK and US reducing their single-use plastic consumption over 12 months


Sir David Attenborough 

Science communication and public engagement aren’t about lecturing people with facts. It’s about having a two-way conversation between the communicator and another person that leads to active engagement and interest in a scientific topic. It’s about peaking someone’s curiosity and encouraging them to explore. 

You don’t need to be a celebrity to be an effective science communicator and have an impact on young people. There are lots of ways to communicate, such as through the media, practical demonstrations or events, and no way is right or wrong. The key thing is to communicate effectively so that your audience is engaged with what you’re saying. Here are my top tips for how to engage young people with STEM: 

  1. Tell your story 
    Adding a personal touch to your activity can help young people understand your point of view. It will also make your topic of communication more relatable. This is a particular problem when discussing research results or complex subjects. If the young person can’t see the point or relevance in what you’re saying, they’ll switch off. If you’re talking about a topic that means something to you, the young people will be able to see your passion and enthusiasm, and this will help them engage with you. They won’t care if you don’t care! 
  1. Get hands-on 
    If you’re running an engagement event or talk, make sure there is some element of interactivity. As I said earlier in this blog, science communication is a 2-way discussion, not just one person talking at another! Hands-on learning is a great way to ensure young people get involved in your event, and could put a fun twist on a stereotypically ‘boring’ subject. Learning by doing also teaches skills like problem solving and encourages imagination and curiosity. In STEM industries, learning by doing is a very common way of picking up skills and knowledge so get them to try something practical! 
  1. Talk about latest research 
    Young people learn a lot about STEM in schools, however this is usually only older research that has made its way into textbooks (e.g. Rutherford’s experiment proving that atoms have nuclei, or the discovery of DNA). Rather than repeating what young people already know, tell them something new! Inform them about the latest research in the field you’re discussing and get their opinions on what it means and what it could lead to. For example, in my final year of university I was tasked with teaching primary school children about bilayer graphene. A lot of children knew about bonds and atomic structures, so instead I talked about how graphene could hypothetically one day be used to make bendable smartphones! 
  1. Incorporate STEM into their daily lives 
    Science is not just for university graduates and researchers. There are many every-day applications of scientific research, from having LED TVs to how induction hobs work. Young people need to see that scientific research has a tangible effect on their lives and the lives of those around them in order to see the value of what you’re trying to tell them. It will also likely encourage them into STEM careers as young people look to enter careers where they can see their work has an impact on the world. 

These are all relatively easy things to achieve when engaging with young people on STEM topics, but can have a huge and lasting impact on their, and societies, future. 
Written by Beth Probert – WISE YPB 

Sustainability – Our key theme for 2020 

Find out how inclusion delivers innovation and sustainability, join us at the WISE Conference 2021.  Show the next generation how STEM jobs can be the way to build on their passion for environmental issues – My Skills My Life: Our Planet

Download | WISE Opportunities for Sponsorship Document