“The important thing is to never stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing.” – Albert Einstein, LIFE magazine, May 2, 1955.

Science is everywhere. For many of us, our curiosity of how the world works started early in our childhood: ‘Why do we get sick?’, ‘How does a computer work?’, or ‘Where does the meat I eat come from?’ As we enter adulthood, these questions have transformed into: ‘What lifestyle and nutritional choices can we make to lower the risk of chronic diseases?’, ‘How can we protect our digital information from cyberattacks?’, and ‘Are the products we consume contributing to mass pollution and global warming?’ As society’s reliance on scientific advancements strengthens, citizens are challenged to make personal and community-based decisions in scientifically rooted global issues. Cultivating both scientific literacy and curiosity in our youth is thus critical for the development of better judgement and decision making in our citizens of tomorrow.

The importance of cultivating scientific curiosity early in education

“The natural curiosity that younger students have about the world fails to translate into a sustained interest in science” – Amgen and Let’s Talk Science (LTS), 2017.

Studies suggest that children are naturally curious about the world around them, but over time they lose interest in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). A report in 2014 by Amgen and LTS surveyed 13- and 17-year-old students and found that 30% and 39% of Canadian students, respectively, reported that ‘science is boring’. The low level of interest is evident in grade 12 students, as only 13-20% of students in Ontario enrolled in a university-level science course in 2017-2018. Students’ loss of interest in STEM can be attributed to many factors, including:

  1. Too challenging, boring, or uninteresting. Students often criticize science education as being too regimented and dry. Traditional STEM education fails to relate scientific concepts back to real-world contexts, making STEM less interesting to students.
  2. Incorrect and stereotypical perceptions of scientists as being ‘nerdy’, ‘socially awkward’, and ‘unattractive’. The incorrect portrayal of scientists in the media may result in students’ adopting and internalizing these stereotypes.
  3. Lack of accessibility to enrichment opportunities. Exposure to STEM outside of the classroom may be limited due to lack of knowledge about these opportunities, lack of financial support, and geographical barriers.

In this article, we highlight the importance of STEM outreach initiatives in fostering scientific curiosity in students. These initiatives expose students to experiential and inquiry-based learning opportunities outside of the classroom to pique students’ interest in STEM. Furthermore, exposure to mentors within the STEM community through these initiatives may help reduce students’ negative perceptions of scientists. We argue that STEM outreach initiatives play an important role in both encouraging students to pursue careers in STEM and developing scientific curiosity in the general public. We hope that by increasing discussions on the importance of STEM outreach and outside-of-classroom learning, we will encourage research trainees (e.g. undergraduate, graduate, and post-doctoral fellows) and established scientists to break beyond their laboratory walls and participate in, engage in, and become leaders of STEM community outreach programs.

Community-based outreach initiatives are an essential component of STEM education

“A single encounter with a science-based activity is unlikely to have a significant impact. What is required is a continuum of educational experiences of science from an early age” – Jonathan Osborne and Justin Dillon, London: The Nuffield Foundation, January 2008.

While schools provide formal introductions to scientific principles and concepts, extracurricular initiatives provide real world contexts to reengage students in the fascinations of STEM. Canada 2067, a national initiative that provides evidence-based recommendations on improving STEM education, highlighted the importance of engaging partners within the community (i.e. not-for-profit organizations), academia (universities, colleges, research institutes, and hospitals), and industry (biotech and pharmaceutical companies) to provide hands-on experiential learning opportunities for students. Despite the recent explosion of new STEM outreach programs in Toronto, there are still challenges in terms of limited opportunities, a lack of diversity in programming, and inequitable accessibility.
Despite the increase in STEM outreach programs, a large proportion of students are not being exposed to these opportunities. To make matters more challenging, various studies have demonstrated that a single exposure to STEM programs is unlikely to make a large impact on a student’s perception of science. Instead, students should receive numerous exposures with different mediums of STEM initiatives over their elementary and secondary education. Furthermore, the majority of STEM outreach initiatives neglects the incredible diversity of research fields and career opportunities encapsulated by STEM. For example, students often forget the breadth of research fields (e.g. ecology, forensics, biochemistry, bioinformatics, marine biology, etc.) and occupations (e.g. pharmacists, occupational therapist, veterinarian, audiologist, etc.) within biological sciences. With the increase in demand for more science outreach programming, we would like to encourage STEM departments within academia and industry alike to develop workshops, high school visits, networking events, and mentorship programs to increase student exposure to the diverse programming of STEM outreach.

Blocking scientific curiosity with physical barriers:
Addressing accessibility issues for STEM outreach programs

As the ecosystem of STEM outreach continues to grow, so does the importance of equitable distribution of opportunities for students. Some barriers to accessing outside-of-classroom STEM enrichment opportunities include:

  • Lack of knowledge, or inadequate communication of available programs. It is currently the responsibility of parents and teachers to gather information, contact STEM organizations, and deliver these opportunities to students on an individual basis. Government-initiated organizations or school boards may reduce such barriers by providing publicly accessible resources that compile all available STEM opportunities to students.
  • Inequities in resources available to public schools. Although many STEM outreach initiatives are driven by non-profit organizations that aim to provide programming free-of-charge, administrative and logistical fees are often covered by school fundraisers or by students themselves. The People for Education Report reported that public schools with students from high-income families fundraised twice as much as schools with students from low-income families. Furthermore, students from private schools are approximately 3.4 times more likely to receive a science fair award than students from public schools. These differences are potentially due to disparities in availability of resources and quality of education between private schools and public schools.
  • High costs of ‘elite’ STEM outreach programs. Participation in leadership opportunities within STEM during secondary school can pave the way of success for students later in their careers. SHAD is a highly competitive month-long science entrepreneurship and leadership conference that boasts a stellar record of producing leaders in STEM. Unfortunately, students from low-income families typically cannot afford SHAD, which costs $5,800 for domestic and $10,000 for international students.

Overall, these barriers to accessing STEM outreach programs may contribute to a cycle of inequity, in which students with advantaged backgrounds continue to outperform their low-income counterparts.

The People for Education Report is a parent-run not-for-profit organization that surveyed 1,244 Ontario elementary and secondary public schools in 2018. Their key findings include:

  • 99% of elementary and 87% of secondary schools reported to having fundraised for supplementary costs of field trips, after school programs, and laboratory equipment for classes.
  • High poverty schools fundraised a median of $6,000 compared to $12,000 from low poverty schools.
  • The average annual activity fee charged by secondary schools is $46 per student, with some up to $300.

The Bay Area Science and Engineering Fair (BASEF) is a competition for Gr.7-12 students from the Bay Area (i.e. Hamilton, Halton Region, Haldimand County, Norfolk County, County of Brant and Six nations).

  • In 2019, 109 of 457 awards were awarded to students from private schools.
  • After normalizing to the number of public and private schools in the Bay Area, students in private schools are 3.4X more likely to win a BASEF award.

 

STEM outreach for visible minorities and marginalized communities: Towards the right direction

Underrepresentation of visible minorities and marginalized communities within STEM careers remains a pressing issue of social inequity. Several outreach organizations aim to empower girls and young women (Metamorphosis Girls STEM Conference), indigenous populations (Elephant Thoughts), students of ethnic minorities (Black Boys Code), and students from low-income families (Visions of Science Network for Learning Inc; VoSNL). Larger STEM organizations, such as Acuta and LTS, have designed specific programming for these marginalized communities. These programs play an important role in encouraging students from underrepresented groups to pursue a career in STEM. For example, VoSNL provides weekly STEM programming for students in grades 3-8 from low-income, marginalized communities, reaching out to over 10,000 students since its incorporation in 2004. Selected testimonies from their annual reports and a study published in the International Journal of STEM Education demonstrated their success in increasing interest in STEM in students from marginalized communities. Developing targeted population-specific programming, providing role models to whom students can relate, and being sensitive to vulnerable populations will be key to the success of such initiatives.

  • Women are underrepresented in STEM fields, making up only 19% of first-year university students in engineering and 27.6% in mathematics, computer science, and information sciences.
  • Students from low-income families in Ontario underperform in STEM-related areas in elementary school and are less likely to pursue a career in STEM.
  • Ethnic minorities are underrepresented in STEM fields, and often lose interest in STEM more than students from non-minority populations.
  • Indigenous students make up less than 1% of Canadians who graduate from STEM-related bachelor’s degrees.
  • Students in remote and northern communities, immigrants, and those with disabilities may also face geographic, language, and learning barriers that reduce STEM achievement.

The next steps forward: Recommendations for future of STEM outreach

Despite the increase in STEM programs throughout Ontario, issues of inequitable accessibility may prevent exposure of some students to these opportunities. Although this article is an incomplete analysis of the field of STEM outreach, we nevertheless provide recommendations and next steps for STEM outreach programs.

  • Increase engagement from university departments and professional organizations. Graduate students and other members of academia can participate in existing STEM organizations as a mentor or a science communicator, to help promote a more scientifically literate society. Furthermore, university departments and professional organizations can organize outreach programs to increase research topic diversity and accessibility of STEM enrichment opportunities.
  • Increase transparency through annual evaluations. Of the 47 STEM outreach initiatives we analyzed, only 25.5% provided publicly available annual evaluations. Comprehensive assessment of STEM outreach program impact from organizations themselves can improve transparency, identify areas for improvement, and provide investors with evidence of impact.
  • Increase participation of students, parents, teachers, and school boards. Open forums that engage different stakeholders of STEM outreach can inform organizations on how to improve their programming. Furthermore, enhanced collaborations between STEM outreach organizations and Ministry of Education can improve integration of STEM outreach initiatives in formal educational platforms.
  • Increase accessibility and inclusivity. Designing programs that account for geographical, financial, and cultural barriers will make STEM outreach more inclusive. STEM programs that are accessible, tailored, and sensitive to populations of visible minorities and marginalized communities will help address social inequalities in STEM.

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Douglas Chung

Douglas is currently a PhD candidate under the supervision of Dr. Pamela Ohashi at Princess Margaret Cancer Center. He is currently interested in understanding novel mechanisms of immune suppression within the tumour microenvironment. Beyond research he is actively involved in science outreach such as Let's Talk Cancer and Science Rendezvous. Through these initiatives he hopes to inspire next generation of young scientists.
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