opinion

Setting, Tension, Explanation, Metaphor: A Storytelling Approach for Early STEM Learning

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Watch a group of young children in a community garden. They’ll dig in the soil, find and play with earthworms and insects, plant seeds in patches of sunlight, and come back to watch them sprout, grow, and bear fruit. With a little help, these kids can be doing more than simply playing in the dirt. They can be learning the beginnings of environmental science and plant biology and practicing critical-thinking and problem-solving skills. Working alongside teachers trained in early STEM learning, they can be exploring the fundamentals of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM)—and developing the skills they need to prepare for the future.

Yet millions of children, and especially the very young, aren’t exposed to these subjects and skills and don’t have the trained teachers who can help them get fluent in them. Advocates for early STEM learning are working to change this, but they face significant communications barriers. At the FrameWorks Institute, a communications think tank founded nearly two decades ago, we study how the public understands and thinks about social and scientific issues so that advocates can communicate more effectively with the public. On Feb. 2, the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop and New America released a report that offers fresh approaches to understanding and addressing the barriers to early STEM learning.

Research reveals that the public holds a number of problematic beliefs about STEM. For example, people think about learning in a linear and hierarchical way. They tend to think that kids need to master “basic” skills like reading, writing, and arithmetic before they can tackle subjects like science, technology, engineering and “higher order” math. If people think (incorrectly) that kids can’t process STEM subjects until they learn other subjects first, parents and voters won’t be likely to prioritize programs that expose very young children to STEM subjects. Watch people reason about STEM learning in on-the-street videos in this multimedia report about how to communicate about reframing STEM education.

People also tend to think that STEM is only for certain “kinds” of kids—those who have an innate interest and aptitude in these subjects. When thinking of STEM in this way, people are less likely to be concerned that children and families enjoy different access to these opportunities. Support for programs and policies designed to provide early STEM access to all children seems ill-considered if only some kids harbor STEM talent.

How can advocates for early STEM learning overcome these problematic ways of thinking? Here’s one approach: A meta-narrative, a core story of STEM education, to help the public understand the importance of STEM learning and support policies and programs that promote it at all ages and for all kids.

Here’s a familiar mnemonic device for this narrative: STEM. This one doesn’t stand for science, technology, engineering, and math, though. It stands for setting, tension, explanation, and metaphor. The components of any good story.

First, setting. In fiction, we think of setting as a “it was a dark and stormy night.” In storytelling for social change, though, setting communicates why an issue is important and matters to society. We use values—cherished cultural ideals like freedom, justice, and equality of opportunity—to set the stage. Not just any value will do, though. We test values to see which are most effective in helping people understand why issues are important to society. Our researchers found that the values of Future Preparation (that we have to plan now for a complex and unpredictable future) and Collective Prosperity (that society as a whole will benefit if we ensure our future leaders have the skills they need to participate in a prosperous, information-age economy) were the most effective at elevating support for STEM policies and programs.

Second, tension. Every story has a villain. Who’s the bad guy in early STEM learning? The paucity of opportunities offered in some places. Some kids live in environments with a lot of STEM learning opportunities; they can plug into STEM learning charging stations like museums, libraries, and schools. Others don’t. They live in charging “dead zones,” and they don’t have access to high-quality learning opportunities. The “charging stations” metaphor helps people understand how systemic factors produce disparities in STEM learning—even at a young age—and how we could change outcomes by charging up those environments.

Third, explanation. In social storytelling, explanation helps people understand complex problems and processes. The community garden example, used at the top of this article, was especially effective. It elevated support for applied learning and informal STEM programs and helped people prioritize experimentation in learning, not just rote memorization of basic skills.

Fourth, metaphor. Metaphors aren’t merely literary devices. They also help people relate complex social and scientific issues to objects and processes from their everyday lives. FrameWorks found several metaphors helped people understand how STEM learning works and whom it benefits. One is the “charging stations” metaphor described above. Another compares STEM learning to becoming fluent in a foreign language. It helps people understand that children develop STEM “fluency” in the same way they learn a new language: through immersion.

Together, these components create a “core story” of STEM education that can help scientists, teachers, and advocates share the science—and be sure that it is getting through.

Susan Nall Bales is founder and senior advisor to the FrameWorks Institute

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