Sport lessons: How STEM can look to sport for lessons in equity

By Gary W. Kerr & Lindsay Keith.

Science remains characterised by a lack of diversity and dearth of role models, particularly women, disabled people, LGBTQ+ people, and people of colour — all of whom are less represented in the science, technology, engineering & mathematics (STEM) sector than in the general workforce.

Science engagement, and uptake of science, is affected by several factors but the intricate detail of how these factors affect participation remains under-researched, so there is no joined-up approach to solving inequity within science engagement. Inequity in science and science engagement is not only a social justice issue but is an economic issue.

A more diverse and skilled STEM workforce is essential to meet the demands of the market to enhance the UK’s STEM economic productivity; however, the framing of science engagement as a means for the UK to be more productive economically continues not to resonate with those communities that science engagement events seek to engage.

Why is STEM inequitable?

In our research, we explored some of the factors which are thought to affect equity of access to science engagement activities. These factors may help explain why audiences, participants, and visitors to science engagement activities have a tendency to attract white, middle class participants, to the exclusion of minority ethnic and/or working class visitors. The same lack of diversity is observed in the STEM workforce.

STEM remains one of the most inequitable industries and is not yet representative of society, despite extensive programmes of outreach, widening participation, science communication, science engagement and over 30 years of science festivals in the UK. Despite many studies about inequity within science and science engagement, the underlying reasons why participation in science and science engagement for some communities is lower than for white, middle classes is less clear.

Aside from the economic workforce imperative, STEM subjects are integral to social development and social mobility with STEM skills improving quality of life and the study of STEM subjects correlating to higher income.

The current framing for the reason we do science engagement is to make science more diverse and representative of society. This framing often does not resonate with communities whom science engagement activities are targeted towards. We propose that taking a person-centred approach to STEM engagement and focussing on reasons that will benefit individuals (rather than STEM industries or the economy), is most likely to result in equitable access to STEM engagement and future STEM study and career choices.

Reframing STEM engagement as a benefit to the individual

We have created a model which we call ‘science engagement for good’. This model seeks to address science inequity through a reframing and refocus of science engagement activities. Science engagement can no longer focus on stressing intrinsic benefits to science but must focus on stressing benefits to the individual in participating in science.

This person-centred approach is popular in the sporting world. UNICEF take this approach in their “Sport for Development” (S4D) programmes. S4D proposed that people engage with sport “for me”, that is their engagement was framed around using sport as a means to achieve crucial individual outcomes for children and young people, such as learning, health, empowerment and protection, rather than the benefit for sport itself.

S4D projects aim to promote positive outcomes in key areas, using sport as a theme to achieve societal goals: education, social inclusion, child protection, empowerment, health and peace building. The power of sport is used to improve the lives of those taking part in the S4D activity or event — usually children or young people. The activities use sport as a means, not as an end, and the focus is on using sport to educate, promote social inclusion, protect children, and empower participants. Unlike many science engagement events, S4D is about the needs of the individual, rather than the needs of the sector.

We propose that science engagement learns from the success of S4D in using science as a means for individual personal development rather than a means to address problems within the STEM sector. The culture of S4D creates a culture of positive participation in sport, and this has been shown to reduce violence and tackle social and structural inequity — issues that affect science as much as sport.

In reframing science engagement, we propose a shift away from trying to increase an individual’s interest in science, but rather promotes engagement with science ‘for good’ reasons we define using our six pillars of ‘science engagement for good’:

  1. Participation in science engagement events/activities will enhance mental wellbeing and/or encourage healthy lifestyle behaviours.
  2. Participation in science engagement events/activities will promote equality and empower marginalised groups.
  3. By participating in the science engagement events/activities, the individual will develop key employability skills such as teamwork, problem-solving, communication and presenting skills.
  4. The science engagement events/activities will create a safe community space that embraces ethical, cultural, and physical differences and promotes the sharing of cultures between different communities.
  5. Participation in the science engagement events/activities will directly lead to increased access to and completion of education.
  6. Engagement with science event/activities will help will actively promote peacekeeping through fostering relationships between different groups.

Summary

Science — like sport — will never be the answer to all the challenges that children and young people face. There are of course many advantages of science adopting this new model which embeds good practice from the sporting world.

There is a need to balance sport and social intervention, and science must also balance the science and societal aspects. Children and young people may join science engagement activities for science, but through the application of this conceptual model, they may stay for personal development and wider support.

This can only be achieved when science engagement is about providing opportunities for individual personal development, rather than solving the challenges within the STEM sector. A rethink on science engagement as described here may sow the seeds for change. No longer can STEM centre their own problems, rather they must centre the individual, and empower them in doing so.

 

Reference

Keith, L. and Kerr, G. (2022). Levelling the playing field: lessons from sport on re-framing science engagement as a benefit to the individual JCOM 21(04), A03. https://doi.org/10.22323/2.21040203

About the authors

Dr. Gary W. Kerr is an Associate Professor in Festival Management at Edinburgh Napier University Business School. His current explores how festivals can become more accessible for people living with dementia. Gary is a keen science communicator with a PhD in Biology and a second PhD in Science Festivals. E-mail: G.Kerr@napier.ac.uk

Dr. Lindsay Keith BSc PhD, PGCertHE Lindsay is a BAFTA nominated film-maker, festival producer, writer, creative research fellow and Head of Communications and Engagement at the MRC Laboratory of Medical Sciences hosted by Imperial College London. After completing her PhD in Infectious Disease at Imperial, she worked in broadcast TV, founding creative production company, The Refinery and SMASHfestUK, an award-winning immersive science and arts festival for marginalized young people and families. Her research specialism is embodiment and behaviour change through immersive narratives. E-mail: L.Keith@lms.mrc.ac.uk