The Estonian Research Council* recently published a study about the current state of STEM popularization in Estonia (the term “popularization of science/STEM” is used more commonly than “science communication” in Estonia), which included an overview of all the activities done by both schools and science communicators and an attempt to assess the development of STEM popularization.
Though some of the conclusions of the study might be unique to the Estonian context, it is also plausible that some of the outcomes are quite universal and apply to other contexts as well. We therefore would like to share some of the key conclusions of the study with you, and perhaps start a discussion about the unique versus universal challenges we face in our everyday work as science communicators.
The study, commissioned by the Council and done by independent think tank, looked at that STEM popularizing activities were undertaken by schools and by science communicators** (not schools – museums, clubs, NGO-s, foundations etc) and then compared to which activities are complementary, which are overlapping, which are in need of.
1. One STEM popularization topic – robotics – has been very successful, while others lag behind
The most common way for schools to popularize STEM is to take students to museums and science centres – 59% of schools stated they visit those places regularly. Although it is widespread to offer after-school activities to students in the form of clubs and other non-formal gatherings, 25% of schools admitted not having any after-school STEM activities.
There seems to be one exception – robotics. 87% of schools stated that there were robotics clubs and activities available in their school or close-by. Only 10% admitted being interested in robotics, but not having access to a such club/activity.
According to the study, “The success of popularizing robotics has been based on active training of instructors, study programmes, how-to materials, and competitions. This model should be followed in other fields as well.”
On the other hand, a third of schools expressed an interest in astronomy, mechanics, electrotechnics, and material science, but admitted their students did not have access to those activities.
different age groups are generally well targeted with STEM popularization
activities, students with special educational needs and/or low motivation are
often left out
42% of schools expressed an interest in activities for less motivated students and 34% for students with special educational needs. But only 22% of schools sought activities for talented students.
On the other hand, almost two-thirds of schools organised STEM activities to engage talented students, while only a fifth tried to engage less motivated students.
At the same time, science communicators would rather not focus their work on the very talented nor the less motivated students (23% and 14% respectively).
The international PISA test has highlighted over the years that though Estonian students perform on a high level on average, the number of top-performing students is rather low. It might be that schools are trying to motivate their top-performers by extra STEM activities, but are hoping that other science communicators would find a key to motivate the low-performers. The answers given by the science communicators themselves indicate that they might not be prepared to do that, though.
3. Parents should be more engaged in STEM activities.
There is no doubt that kids are very busy with all their extra-curricular activities. The overwhelmingly popular choices for non-formal learning and after-school clubs are music, dance, and sports. Only about 4% of kids involved in after-school non-formal learning are taking part in STEM activities.
One of the reasons for this is arguably that parents tend to choose activities for their kids that they themselves are confident in. 34% of schools surveyed believed that parents should be much more involved in STEM activities, so they would feel more confident in the subjects and would be more likely to encourage their kids to take part in those activities. Furthermore, parents should be included and engaged in organising STEM activities, not necessarily the target group.
4. STEM popularization funding needs to be more consistent
The ongoing practice in Estonia is that STEM popularization projects apply for funding once a year for usually one year. The study recommends to policy makers to allow a good project to get funding for two-three years instead of having to apply for funding every year, in order to achieve an impact.
But another problem is the ability of science communicators to set project targets and assess the impact of activities. Even though there is a lot of literature on the subject, many communicators still value the number of participants above other factors to measure impact (83% of science communicators and 67% of schools said it was the number one measurement.)
5. Students still do not know much about STEM careers
. Although one of the big ideas behind the concept of STEM popularization is to encourage young people to choose a career in science, Estonian students still don’t seem to know much about being a scientist. Half of the surveyed schools thought students know “something” about STEM careers, while only 1% thought students are very well informed.
6. We know how to ignite interest in STEM is good, but how to keep that interest going?
88% of schools stated they engaged in STEM activities to get their students interested in STEM, but only 21% did the activities to continue supporting their interest. Science communicators valued sustaining interest only a little bit more – 79% of them thought igniting interest was really important, while 36% also valued keeping that interest going.
7. There needs to be more coordination
. Seems like there’s never enough coordination. The study highlighted that all STEM activities should be monitored more closely to the able to assess their impact and to make sure funding is used wisely to cover all the necessary target groups, geographical locations, and STEM fields.
* The Estonian Research Council is a governmental foundation in charge of funding research and development, the coordination of science communication activities in Estonia, and the national contact point for EU programmes. See more:
Executive Summary pp 7–8.
school representatives and 103 science communicators were surveyed and
interviewed for the study.
Trying to teach kids to debate about science
Energy Discovery Centre in a partner in two EU projects seeking to remedy some of the problems outlined in the mentioned study. The Erasmus+ project ODYSSEY (https://odyssey.igf.edu.pl) aims to introduce competitive debating as a pedagogical tool in teaching STEM subjects, and to create quality pedagogical materials for debating on science topics. In the course of the project, student debate competitions will be organised in all four partner countries.
The Horizon 2020 financed project “Science Education for Action and Engagement Towards Sustainability (SEAS)”, led by the University of Oslo, aims to establish, coordinate and evaluate collaboration among six open schooling networks in Austria, Belgium, Estonia, Italy, Norway, Sweden, and the UK. One of the objectives of the project is to develop an assessment framework across formal, informal and non-formal science education with an aim of providing quality assurance in future open schooling initiatives, and to assess the effects of such initiatives.