STEM Student Reporting Labs: Youth Engagement Through Journalism

Existing research indicates that engaging and sustaining youth interest in STEM subjects past elementary school remains challenging. This is especially true for girls, students from minority groups, and economically disadvantaged individuals. Strategies for expanding and diversifying pathways for individuals to pursue STEM and STEM adjacent careers could approach the issue by helping students connect their existing interests with STEM concepts and situate STEM in the context of their daily lives.

Seeking to use narrative as a vehicle for getting more young people interested in STEM, the National Science Foundation supported a WETA/PBS NewsHour initiative to adapt their Student Reporting Labs (SRL) curriculum to feature a focus on STEM content in 2015. NewsHour selected Knology to run a four-year evaluation of the project from 2015 to 2019. Building on earlier research about student-led science journalism (e.g. Polman & Hope, 2014; Nicholas, 2017), this project suggests that having students develop and produce narratives about complex STEM topics may make these topics far less intimidating and serve as the impetus for greater involvement in STEM learning.

Using a guided curriculum that includes examples of PBS NewsHour science reporting and story prompts related to current social issues, the SRL program has helped middle and high school students see themselves as journalists and engage in journalistic practices under the direction and mentorship of an established media organization. In addition, NewsHour’s efforts amplify youth voices by providing a platform for sharing their perspectives with a national audience. Many of the SRL students’ final stories air either on the national broadcast of the PBS NewsHour or a local public affairs program on a PBS affiliate. In some cases, stories are shared as part of national conferences and festivals. On a smaller scale, students share their work with peers, teachers, mentors, and community members as part of a film festival and competition organized by the SRL project team.

STEM SRL initiative has the added goal of diversifying the STEM workforce by increasing participation from groups that have largely been excluded to date. Part of this process involves connecting students with professional mentors that look like them in terms of gender and ethnicity. But equally important is demystifying the subject matter. A story about the effects of climate change on the water supply in students’ communities may be more useful for motivating young people to study the underlying science and consider engineering careers than reading the same concepts from a textbook. Moreover, encouraging young people to do the investigative work required for good reportage gives them the chance to practice many of the same skills needed for rigorous scientific inquiry and study.

Independent evaluation of the four-year initiative by Knology demonstrated that in addition to increased media literacy and critical thinking skills, the STEM SRL program helped students connect concepts learned in class to the world outside. As a result, students said that they gained a more expansive view of what STEM encompasses and a deeper understanding of the civic role of journalism.

By the end of their learning year, we frequently heard students say that they find it difficult to watch videos or films without a critical eye because of their experiences as video journalists. Furthermore, STEM SRL increases the breadth of available STEM news content that specifically targets young people. Access to this information may encourage more young people to take on active roles in addressing issues within their communities that some of these stories address.

Accomplishments & Impacts

The STEM SRL program provided students with important awareness of the variety of STEM-linked career options and built confidence in their ability to understand STEM concepts. Through the program, participants gained interest and expertise in their particular story topics, as well as a better understanding of professionals’ day-to-day activities. Students cultivated professional skills such as effective strategies for communicating with authority figures in work environments, and connected with mentors and potential future employers.

Students had a platform for sharing their perspectives on issues of important to them and their communities. Their stories were disseminated through the NewsHour website and in several news broadcasts as well as some conferences and festivals. These stories contribute to the existing body of resources designed specifically for youth audiences. In the final two years of the evaluation, students participated in a film festival that engaged their peers, teachers, and members of their communities in deliberating on the quality of the stories and their featured topics. In 2018, five STEM Labs and two Health Labs participated in the film festival. Their audiences ranged from 30 people to over 300. In Year 2019, six STEM Labs participated in the film festival. Their audiences ranged from 18 people to over 100.

STEM Student Reporting Labs helped students connect STEM concepts to situations outside the classroom and increased their confidence in their abilities to understand and talk about complicated topics. The transdisciplinary nature of the program helped students connect their STEM content knowledge to skills in other areas like technology and storytelling. Simultaneously, participating teachers—who typically had backgrounds in disciplines outside of STEM—gained a better understanding of science and the basics of scientific research through the Labs.

Interactions with media and STEM professionals, as both mentors and sources, exposed students to more career choices than they may have considered previously. These interactions helped students visualize themselves in different jobs, understand motivations for pursuing them, and have more realistic expectations of different careers. Students also cultivated transferable interpersonal and professional skills, including ways of working collaboratively towards shared goals and responding professionally to feedback.

The evaluation showed that teachers availed themselves of professional development opportunities provided by the SRL team including an annual workshop as well as in through training provided over the course of the program years. Teachers asked questions, reviewed the proposed curriculum, and discussed strategies for using the resources provided in classrooms with members of the SRL team. They also helped select topics that were used during program years. Lastly, three teachers worked closely with the project team to produce a publication for peer review.

The STEM SRL initiative has also produced various educational resources that can be used after the end of the official project period, including curricula, teaching aids, and worksheets for teachers and students. Several STEM SRL Master Teachers are continuing to run their Labs as STEM Labs in the 2019-2020 school year and plan to do so for the foreseeable future.