Say this, not that

Many of the common arguments that STEM education advocates are currently using don’t help advance people’s thinking about STEM learning and why it matters. Some of our suggestions may seem counter-intuitive, but framing is a process of making choices about what to emphasize – and what to leave unsaid. Here's a quick tour of themes to avoid, compared with alternatives to advance.

We frequently use these terms...

Instead of this:

Try this:

"STEM"

Spell it out and say "Science, technology, engineering, and math". Let people know what subjects make up STEM skills and learning.

Research shows that the STEM acronym is meaningless to the public. When communicators say "STEM", the public hears "Math" and leaves out the rest of the STEM subjects. Name the disciplines whenever and wherever possible.

Instead of this:

Try this:

Out-of-school time

Programs that meet afterschool, on the weekends, or during the summer.

Part of a STEM communicator's mission is to broaden people's understanding of what learning is and where it can happen and disrupt the assumption that kids can only learn "real" skills during traditional school hours and that any other times should be reserved for non-academic activities. To build support for all of the contexts where STEM learning takes places, communicators need to focus on showing how kids build and improve a variety of skills in a variety of contexts.  Provide rich explanation of what happens in these programs, not the when and where.

We frequently make these arguments...

Instead of this:

Try this:

To remain competitive in a global economy…

To build our shared prosperity…

Stimulating societal investment in STEM learning for all kids requires helping the public see benefits beyond those for individual children.  Language that captures the Value Collective Prosperity —the idea that by improving afterschool learning in science, technology, engineering and math, we contribute to a stronger economy and a vibrant, modern society—orients people to the collective, societal benefits of STEM learning. STEM communicators want the public to see STEM learning as a shared good and societal responsibility. Connecting STEM to prosperity for all children and youth positions STEM learning as important for the economy, and opens a door for thinking about shared benefits.

The global competition frame taps into an unproductive narrative about America's best days being behind her. Collective Prosperity as an explanation for why STEM matters offers a sharp contrast to global competition's backwards-looking frame, by pointing toward the future.

Instead of this:

Try this:

STEM degrees lead to high-paying careers.

Innovation drives the economy.

Messages that emphasize shared, collective benefits combat the sense of Individualism that is common across discussions about learning and children's outcomes. These messages also  bring the public into ways of thinking about education that are more in line with that of experts. The field can help by shifting the focus away from individuals to systems.  The conversation then moves from personal gain toward collective benefits, and STEM communicators broaden the understanding and recognition of why STEM learning is so important.  Additionally, once the conversation is about structures, this leads to better understanding of how the pieces of these system work together and how they might best be supported. We can bring the public into seeing the need of program and policy supports advocated by experts.

Instead of this:

Try this:

U.S. can't fill STEM jobs, so they go overseas.

The sector is growing – let's grow with it.

Crisis messaging about the American workforce and STEM skills is not effective in building public support for expanded STEM learning opportunities.  To talk about the benefits that STEM learning offers the American workforce, communicators should appeal to the Value Future Preparation—to build an agile and adaptable workforce that can perform the jobs of the future and contribute as citizen, we need to help children develop their science, technology, engineering and mathematics skills.  Continue to combat a sense of Fatalism by focusing on building STEM skills as a feasible approach to building our country's workforce, opportunities, and prosperity.

Instead of this:

Try this:

Kids learn to solve problems, think critically.

STEM builds the skills our society needs for a complex future.

The public needs a more complete understanding of how STEM learning works, and what kinds of skills the STEM disciplines help students develop. Give the public answers to these questions by emphasizing how the skills that children learn in STEM programs can be woven together and strengthened in order to develop the critical skills needed throughout life.

Instead of this:

Try this:

Afterschool keeps the academic clock ticking.

Exploratory, supportive, flexible settings let kids learn in a different way.

While it is true that afterschool programs expand kids' learning time, communicators will want to avoid cuing up problematic ways of thinking about afterschool as something that somehow distracts or takes away from the school day.  Instead focus on the unique contributions of afterschool. Talk about how programs activate learning and the distinctive characteristics of STEM learning. Out of school environments help kids develop their STEM fluency by letting them develop, practice and apply STEM skills in the real world. Creating a wider system of immersive environments for STEM learning like out of school programs provide multiple points where students can access STEM learning. Show how these opportunities are a vital part complement of formal learning opportunities that form a STEM ecosystem.

Instead of this:

Try this:

Afterschool STEM works to end race and gender inequities in education and the workforce.

Talk about making access to STEM learning opportunities more fair, equitable, and available to all kids

When asked to understand how inequities arrive, the public falls back on Willpower as the determinant of children's success. This way of thinking does not advance support for STEM learning opportunities.  Thus, if the goal of your communications is to get people to think about inequity, guide the conversation by starting with equitable distribution of high-quality opportunities for skill development. Focus attention on ways that we can make charging stations for STEM learning more available, how we can see more places in a community where children can come and charge up their learning. Within the frame of providing fair, reliable , and widespread access, the public and policy makers are better able to appreciate how public solutions and support can make the biggest difference for underrepresented or underserved groups by focusing efforts there first.

Instead of this:

Try this:

Let me tell you this inspiring story about Jamal…

Talk about the community, contexts, or collective actions that help students succeed. Explain how STEM improves outcomes by giving examples of programs that are improving outcomes for all children.

Move away from stories with a narrow focus on individuals and instead bring forward the contexts that support children's learning.  These can be the main characters and "heroes" in your storytelling, rather than focusing on individuals who "beat the odds" which can feed the public's dominant belief that willpower and personal choices are the main determinants of children's success.  

Further, because research on public thinking about STEM learning finds a dominant assumption that only certain types of children can learn and do well in STEM disciplines. Communicators can counteract this thinking when they give examples of STEM programs and explain how they lead to learning for all kids. When talking about programs, emphasize what kind of learning happens within programs and how they lead to better outcomes for kids, and details including links to STEM careers. When giving examples, move beyond the "typical, nerdy" programs to those that the public may not automatically see as connected to STEM skills and learning.

Instead of this:

Try this:

Afterschool providers tend to have great relationships with families, and frankly, are an essential support for many working families.

Focus your communications real estate on other important aspects of STEM learning that are in need of explanation, namely, why STEM learning is important, how informal works, and how programs
improve STEM learning.

This campaign is working to build a broader and more complete understanding of the need for STEM education and expanded learning opportunities for all children. This will require telling a new narrative that widens the lens and shows the benefits of afterschool extend well beyond the idea that afterschool is about keeping kids safe.  This new narrative explains why learning these essential skills matters, how STEM learning works, what problems for STEM learning need to be addressed, and connect programs to learning outcomes.

This narrative not only fills in the gaps in public understanding, but it also redirects other problematic habits of thought (i.e. STEM learning is only appropriate for some children, that learning only happens in the classroom, or that informal learning is supplemental) that prevent people from seeing the many broad shared benefits and responsibility for STEM.