STEM outreach – Is enthusiasm, expertise or collaboration key?

group of pupils discussing 'safe biking' as part of a STEM project

When the president of the Engineers Without Borders student society at the University of Glasgow approached the School of Education to support them in developing a resource for a STEM outreach project in local secondary schools, a new collaboration was born. A team of five was formed: three female undergraduate engineering students, a lecturer in maths education and a lecturer in physics education, each with their own previous experiences of STEM outreach. Each member of the team brought their own enthusiasm and expertise, as well as gaps in knowledge, to the collaboration. If the project was to be a success, would enthusiasm, expertise or collaboration be key?

The engineering students brought an enthusiasm to share their engineering knowledge, to inspire others (particularly, but not exclusively, females), to pursue engineering and to promote sustainability. For one of the students, STEM outreach activities had had a big influence on their career choice as a school pupil and they were keen to “let children out there know that there’s still opportunities in STEM, especially for women” [Engineering Student A]. The education lecturers brought an enthusiasm to ensure that STEM outreach was high quality and useful to schools, rather than an ‘add on’ that did not actually add value or depth to young people’s learning. This stance was based on some of their previous experience of STEM outreach activities as educators and in response to criticisms of STEM outreach activities often cited in education literature. The education lecturers also brought expertise in curriculum knowledge and pupil learning alongside teaching expertise developed over 20 years of practice. This expertise slipped snuggly into the gaps of knowledge held by the engineering students who, in turn, were able to use their niche expertise in engineering principles and processes alongside their technical knowledge of renewable energy to fill the gaps in knowledge of the lecturers.

The initial idea brought by the engineering students was to provide an introductory PowerPoint presentation and a Kahoot online quiz for teachers to use with young people to introduce a challenge. During the challenge, young people would carry out research to work on and then present a solution to the problem of powering a remote island using renewable energy sources. For the undergraduate engineers, keen to pursue careers in renewable and sustainability industries, this seemed like an inspiring novel idea to engage young people with the possibilities that engineering had to offer. What the engineering students were unaware of, because they had not experienced this in their own school education, was that this type of challenge is a fairly common one in use in the science departments of Scottish secondary schools. In fact, the Association for Science Education was among the first to publish a challenge of this type in the 1980’s called ‘Ashton Island’ and subsequent organisations have produced many updated versions since, e.g., Practical Action’s ‘Moja Island’.

So what could this collaboration bring that did not already exist as common practice in schools? The idea re-formed to make use of the students themselves to act as consultant experts to answer the questions that young people would need to ask in order to solve the challenge, e.g., information about costs and power production for renewable technologies. Anyone who has tried to research costs and outputs of renewable technologies such as photovoltaic cells or wind turbines will be aware that such research is a minefield: for example, costs are frequently stated in different currencies, installation and maintenance costs are hard to find, the units used for energy production range from kilowatt hours to joule seconds. It is a minefield of information more likely to distract from young people’s learning than enhance it. In order to solve the challenge set, the young people would need to both ask the engineering students specific questions and generate these questions themselves through the process of ‘thinking like an engineer’.

The journey of re-formation was not an easy one. The students were committed to putting a great deal of time and effort into developing the resources but didn’t initially realise how vast this requirement would be “to move on to the next part, there was so much to be done into that little part before moving on” [Engineering Student A], nor how much detail and clarification would be needed before it could be used in schools: “When we started working on the program … we just had a vague idea of what we wanted to do and what we wanted included” [Engineering Student A]. The most challenging part for the students was the beginning: ”We needed to remove a lot of things, and we needed to rephrase a lot of things, and rethink a lot of things, and that we personally, I personally found that hard, because I thought if I change everything, what would be left” [Engineering Student A]. For the education lecturers there was a challenge to find a way to communicate across disciplinary and power-distance boundaries, so that a balance was struck between valuing the elements of the students work that they felt strongly about whilst also helping the students to develop their thinking around the aspects the lecturers deemed important. “A challenge was to make sure that everyone’s elements were incorporated, and that everyone felt some sort of ownership of the project and program, and at the end of the day, making sure that all voices were heard because a lot of us were really equally passionate in different areas, and it was getting that kind of overall consensus” [Engineering Student B]. With a lot of strong feelings, reflective of the depth of enthusiasm brought, the process was often frustrating for all involved, but, looking back, each member of the team considered every step of the process to be important and, if given a second chance, would take part in the collaboration again.

Beyond the development of the engineering students’ thinking and understanding around effective STEM outreach, the engineering students felt that “the skills and all this stuff that I learned … could translate into all different projects” [Engineering Student A]. The students identified skills they had developed that would help them specifically with other STEM outreach activities but also skills that would help them in their future workplaces when working with clients: “What has improved is kind of my understanding of how best to use what I know and the language that I’m using to distribute my knowledge to a variety of different audiences, and show that passion” [Engineering Student B]. The collaboration had helped the engineering students to: develop patience by working on long term project over the course of a year; to undertake extensive background research and calculation; to adjust the language of their explanation to be appropriate for the audience; to listen carefully to others’ ideas to try to understand others thinking and to ask probing questions rather than to categorise responses as wrong. For the education lecturers the most rewarding thing was feeling that they had made a difference to the engineering students’ thinking around good quality STEM outreach. There was much more that was learnt from this collaboration than young people’s learning around renewable energies.

The engineering students came to the first team meeting with an idea of a renewable energy design challenge for lower secondary pupils that they thought was ready to use in schools. At that first meeting none of the team really knew what they were letting themselves in for! It would be over a year later after much hard work, time, effort and frustration before the resource was, in the opinion of all the team, on its way to being ready for use with schools. “I would say the most rewarding thing personally for me was near the end when everything just started to come together… we started the program from scratch” [Engineering Student A]. The process took much longer than any of the team thought and as a result was never actually used in schools by this group of engineering students, because their Outreach committee term had come to an end. It was, however, passed on to the subsequent Outreach committee of the Engineers Without Borders student group at the University of Glasgow, for use with schools.

So was enthusiasm, expertise or collaboration key to high quality effective STEM outreach? It very much remains to be seen, but the students and lecturers involved in this project believe that all three play a key role.

Anthony, A. B., Greene, H., Post, P. E. & Parkhurst, A. (2016) “Preparing university students to lead K-12 engineering outreach programmes: a design experiment”, European Journal of Engineering in Education, vol. 41, no. 6, pp. 623–637, DOI:

Association for Science Education (1984), SATIS No. 104 Ashton Island, Hatfield: Association for Science Education, Accessed at, Date accessed May 2023.

Practical Action (2018), Moja Island, Accessed at, Date accessed May 2023.

Saville, E., Jakobi, J., Beaudoin, A.S. & Cherkowski, S. (2022), “Participation value of undergraduate students leading STEM outreach: evaluation of academic, personal, and professional effects”, Advances in physiology education, vol. 46, no. 1, pp. 140-144. DOI:

Vennix, J., den Brok, P. & Taconis, R. (2018), “Do outreach activities in secondary STEM education motivate students and improve their attitudes towards STEM?”, International journal of science education, vol. 40, no. 11, pp. 1263-1283. DOI: