Talking about STEM: Telling stories, connecting through common values

100Kin10, an alliance of more than 115 public, private and non-profit organizations, has an ambitious goal: to train, hire and support 100,000 excellent science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) teachers over the coming 10 years. 

The movement is inspired by a vision of a future where all students have the STEM literacy necessary to be full participants in the nation’s economy and democracy. There’s a belief among partners that getting to their ambitious goal in a decade will require not only concrete and measurable commitments to bringing more, STEM teachers to American classrooms, but a genuine passion for the task and willingness to spread that passion.

Increasing impact through communications

Communications is a critical element to achieving the movement’s goals. In one case it could mean opening colleagues’ eyes to the challenges of economic competitiveness in a globalized, technology-driven age, in another to disseminating the results of a university initiative to prepare 1,500 new math and science teachers annually for high-need schools .

A history of grantee skills-building

Carnegie Corporation has been investing in communications training programs for its grantees for over a decade. Offered as a supplement to grants, the goal of the trainings has been to better equip the foundation’s grantees to create and implement their own effective communications strategies in order to achieve their organizational goals. A well-planned communications strategy and the know-how to carry it out has immediate benefits and helps meet key goals in the future.  

With this fact in mind, the Corporation offered a high-level messaging and skills-building seminar for leaders of the organizations involved in the 100Kin10 initiative.  The workshop, which included sessions on crafting messages on education; media and presentation training; social media and more, was held on April 19th at the Paley Center for Media in New York. Former President Bill Clinton gave the keynote address. He was introduced by Carnegie Corporation President Vartan Gregorian who also delivered welcoming remarks to the assembled funders and partners.

Getting everyone on board

As partners begin to implement the commitments they made toward improving STEM education, a number of their constituents aren’t convinced of the need to get more high quality STEM teachers into the country’s classrooms. Others fail to grasp the strong link between STEM education and the country’s—or their home state’s—ability to remain economically competitive.  And some question why rigorous STEM education is necessary for those high school students not intending to pursue science- or math-intensive careers. Still others may believe excellent STEM teachers should be reserved for only the most advanced students. All such barriers must be addressed.  Yet, no single communications strategy can address every issue, and no best practice fully conveys the urgency of the need to improve U.S.STEM education.

Meeting partners’ needs

To design a high-impact strategic communications and leadership workshop, Carnegie Corporation’s Office of Public Affairs first assessed the needs of the 100Kin10 partners via a comprehensive online survey to determine their needs, current level of expertise and specific challenges.   The surveys revealed that many partners were having difficulty connecting to key audiences on the issue of STEM teaching.  In response, two of the day’s sessions featured experts on values messaging and storytelling, and offered insight on how to build consensus around STEM.

When people can find common ground on issues like opportunity, equality, family, and progress, identifying these shared values and principles can make it easier to open minds to explicit discussions about STEM-related topics like innovation and competiveness. In talking about 100Kin10, the most important tactic involves moving audiences from words used to describe common values—like family, country and responsibility—to language about STEM that is accessible and relevant.

Media training and storytelling

A session on media and presentation training removed some of the mystery and fear from a process many partners find intimidating.  While a grasp of the facts is vital, trainers stressed that reporters, policymakers and any audience really wants answers to basic questions: Why should I care about this right now? What can I do about it?  Partners were advised not to obsess about accuracy, but to let go of precision in order to tell a story.

Because STEM education can be an unfamiliar topic, and because it may be hard for some people to grasp its importance or to connect it to their lives, partners were offered expert advice by a group of former actors on how to use storytelling to personalize a topic, connect with people and move them to action. They demonstrated how embedding the STEM message in a narrative and sharing it with the audience can help make it more memorable.

Communications can help get to 100,000

Getting to 100,000 STEM teachers will require innovation and determination from the partners, more funding from new sources, and most importantly, thousands of talented women and men committed to entering teaching and continually improving their practice.  With strategic communications skills as part of their arsenal, partners are now even better equipped to meet that goal.