STEM Strategies: Student Ambassadors and Equality in Higher Education, by Clare Gartland

Irene Glendinning evaluates a rare study of the effectiveness of STEM widening-participation schemes

November 6, 2014

It is increasingly common for universities to use students to help with outreach activities at local schools in order to encourage interest in science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine careers. Here, Clare Gartland evaluates the work of the student ambassadors who are aiming to raise aspirations and influence career options for young people who may not have been planning on entering higher education, or who may not have previously considered specialising in STEM subjects.

The study on which this book is based compared two London-based higher education institutions with very different widening-participation and STEM outreach strategies. The activities at “Royal” (a Russell Group institution) focused on medicine, and at “Bankside” (a post-92 university) on engineering. Evidence was captured through observation, supported by informal interviews and focus groups with participants during outreach events.

Most of the outreach work considered here was directed towards disparities in gender, social class and ethnicity. The widening-participation schemes under consideration - particularly Aimhigher, the Medical Access Scheme, the Gifted and Talented programme and the Access to Engineering Project - differed considerably in their interpretation of widening participation, which pupils were to be targeted and what types of activities were offered.

Although ambassadors were expected to promote STEM and higher education in general to pupils, the initiatives were also seen as marketing opportunities for their institutions. At Royal, very little overlap was evident between local schools targeted for outreach and their national recruitment focus. Medical students were appointed to help with Royal’s activities, but their other widening participation activities and recruitment were supported by different centrally recruited ambassadors. At Bankside, the student ambassadors and schools targeted for core recruitment and marketing activities were the same as those for outreach work, which led to some blurring of objectives.

Gartland’s book highlights a number of serious considerations for those organising widening participation activities, especially what type of activity works best, how ambassadors are recruited and how well they are trained, briefed and equipped to meet the demands of the activities they are asked to help with. In one example, where ambassadors supported mathematics teaching in a school, the outcomes appeared to be less positive for the STEM agenda than activities with a more informal structure that included opportunities for social interaction between ambassadors and pupils.

The discussions around the identities adopted by ambassadors and how the pupils related to them were of interest to me: ambassadors were usually considered role models, but sometimes not. Gartland sees it as inappropriate when ambassadors adopted a “deficit and charity” attitude towards pupils. This particularly applied to the largely white middle-class ambassadors from Royal when helping what they perceived to be economically and socially disadvantaged, underperforming pupils from local comprehensives.

It was disappointing to hear that few pupil participants were converted to a higher education trajectory through these schemes, as most had already been planning to go to university. However, most pupils agreed that ambassadors had brought them first-hand experience of what student life was really like, in certain cases countering negative perceptions about STEM careers that had been gained previously from teachers or careers advisers.

This book should be of interest to anyone involved in widening participation, schools outreach or recruitment. There has been very little evaluation of the impact of STEM outreach schemes, or of the work of student ambassadors in this field, so this contribution is important.

STEM Strategies: Student Ambassadors and Equality in Higher Education

By Clare Gartland
Institute of Education Press, 200pp, £25.99
ISBN 9781858566177
Published 15 August 2014

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