Reframing, Rebranding and Re-Energizing the STEM Conversation

When it comes to encouraging more young women to pursue careers in STEM (Science, Technology, Math and Engineering), we need to forget the pep talks, the tactics, the reviews and the carrots.

Here's the one thing that you're probably not doing -- but need to.

REBRAND the Conversation.

The world of education is new to the idea of branding. But to market STEM effectively, we must be clear about what STEM stands for and what differentiates this conversation from the others we are having about education reform.

Many educators think of "branding" as what you create to package the image: the tagline, the colors, the design, the typeface, the advertisements and other snazzy stuff.

Real branding is about selecting, cultivating and communicating with stakeholders the mission you want them to be part of.

Sir Richard Branson, CEO of Virgin Airlines describes branding in this way:

A brand is more than a name or a logo - it is a promise and a contract with every customer with whom you are dealing and if people feel that the offering does not live up to what they expect from the brand, they will decide to stop buying.

Despite the mounds of research, the billions of dollars spent on programming and in spite of a presidential plea, we are failing at the brand of STEM.

Brian Dyak, President of Entertainment Industries Council, told the New York Times that more than 86 percent of participants surveyed by EIC said they did not understand what STEM education meant and "it made them think of stem cells, branches, leaves and broccoli stems." Dyak concluded, "We have a branding issue here."

As David Steel, Executive Vice President of Strategy for Samsung Electronics North America, explains in a Washington Post article, "According to a recent survey by Intel Corporation and Change the Equation ...three out of five teenagers have never considered a career in engineering."

Can educators make a difference here? A 2011 survey by Microsoft found that "68 percent [of females] versus 51 percent of males" cited "'a teacher or class' as the top factor that sparked their interest" in pursuing a career in STEM.

To help young people to view STEM in a positive light, we need to focus on what comes from concretely and clearly answering these three questions:

1. What is STEM?

STEM is not just about teaching Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. It is about inspiring a generation and focusing our efforts on students who otherwise would not consider a further education in these fields. How do we do that? By working on our branding of STEM. Many students think that STEM subjects "aren't for them," as though it were pre-ordained from their birth.

As the National Science Board explained in its 2010 report, "Preparing the Next Generation of STEM Innovators: Identifying and Developing our Nation's Human Capital", "Talent is not a binary phenomenon (i.e., "you have it or you don't")," but rather, it "can be developed over time with proper training, and the developmental process can occur at different paces for different people."

In a previous post, I addressed the ways we could detail, describe and discuss STEM in a way that would not only inform, but also inspire. As I explained, when speaking to students about STEM, our words must do three things:

  • Be Specific - We must extinguish ambiguity and deepen the understanding and definition of STEM.
  • Be Vivid - Don't just describe what young people can do in STEM; paint a picture of who they can become.
  • Be Audacious - Young leaders and learners are waiting for the invitation to be part of something big; something that matters. Let our words invite them.

2. What does STEM do?

STEM is considered by some to be the key to the US economy staking a stronger claim in the future world economy.

As Brian Kelly of U.S. News explains, "In the job market, consider that there are approximately 3 million unfilled positions because companies can't find workers with basic technical skills. There's expected to be about 10 million such openings by 2020." 10 million unfilled positions because our kids will not have the basic technical skills. Kelly further writes, "A two-year degree in a STEM field is worth more than a four-year liberal arts diploma." So how do we relay better information to our students? Stitching together employer needs with education skills into a career pathway will be crucial.

3. And Most Importantly- Why Does STEM Matter?

It is critical to be explicit about why STEM matters. In most schools and classrooms today, both faculty and students approach STEM education as a consumption process. Few teachers talk to students about how these disciplines, careers and fields matter to individuals and how we live our lives in the STEM world.

Many students have no idea what engineers, scientist and mathematicians today can actually do when their skills are applied in areas that students are interested in. And therein lies the elephant in the room. We are seeking to influence and control what is not understood.

Samsung's Steel highlights an Intel survey that shows that:

when the teenagers surveyed understood that engineers create the tools and experiences that comprise their daily lives -- such as texting on their smart phone, sharing experiences with friends on Facebook or creating gaming technologies -- more than half then expressed an interest in engineering.

It's important to give students the real life examples of what they can do with a degree in a STEM field.

  • As fellow Huffington Post blogger Alison Craig Hockenberry pointed out in a 2011 post, it's important to tell your students that without STEM we wouldn't have the Harry Potter films, Angry Birds or Avatar.
  • In a BlogHer post, Faye Anderson lauds the science-based rap contest Science Genius BATTLES created by GZA of the Wu-Tang Clan, Columbia Teachers' College professor Christopher Emdin and the website Rap Genius to use hip-hop to teach science.
  • TopCoder developed NoNameSite so students can learn how to code, play games and engage with other students by coding games together.

What can you add to the acronym STEM that would demonstrate the essence of these fields today?

The following resources will provide you with a plethora of examples, inspirations, and models to help bring this branding alive:

  • Lastly, the National Education Association offers a fantastic article, "The 10 Best STEM Resources" in which, The Exploratorium, a hands-on science museum in San Francisco provides fun and engaging ways for students to become interested in STEM.

Your most important takeaway from this post should be this:

Your brand is not what you say it is...but rather what your stakeholders say it is.

So I leave you with this, when our students hear the word "STEM" in a course or classroom, what does it mean to them?

Here's what it should...

STEM is:

● An aspiration to create
● A passion to help humankind
● A strategy and opportunity to effect change
● A means by which you see yourself
● An art of make something useful
● A desire to impact the world
● Imagination amplified
● Hope, beauty, insight made visible
● The human capacity to plan and produce
● Human-driven and heart-fueled
● The change we can/must see in the world

Let's REBRAND the conversation, shall we?