What is needed to run a successful outreach programme?

Lessons on running a successful outreach programme designed to spark school pupils’ interest in university, based on a 13-year project focused on getting more girls studying STEM

Bia Hamed's avatar
Eastern Michigan University
18 Sep 2023
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School girls take part in activities at the Digital Divas conference

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Considerable work needs to be done to build a strong workforce of women in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM)-related fields in the US. The number of women in STEM jobs is growing – from 8 per cent of STEM workers in 1970 to 27 per cent in 2019 – but men still dominate the field. This starts with an imbalance at degree level. Elementary, middle and high-school girls and boys take STEM courses in roughly equal numbers. However, upon high-school graduation, only 28 per cent of girls aspire to a STEM career, compared with 65 per cent of boys.

One way to address this is active outreach by universities, with activities designed to generate greater interest in STEM among young women in high school. Eastern Michigan University’s Digital Divas programme demonstrates the impact such efforts can have, if effectively planned and delivered.

Now in its 13th year, the annual one-day conference has engaged an estimated 13,000 girls from middle and high schools throughout south-east Michigan. The all-girl programme gives under-represented young women a sense of belonging in STEM, empowering them to express themselves and embrace learning without feeling overshadowed by boys.

The conference begins with women speakers from STEM fields who share stories of their own journeys and successes working in STEM. Next the girls attend two break-out sessions of their choice to engage in hands-on learning. Examples of these sessions include The Basics of How to Fly a Plane, Making Casts with Orthotics & Prosthetics, Making Networks Safe with Cyber Security and Technology in Interior Design. Sessions are usually run by faculty and students with expertise in the relevant field. Men do attend and provide support, but it is always women at the forefront of the programme, sending out a clear message that women belong in STEM. 

Here are some important lessons for establishing a programme of this nature that we’ve learned over 13 years:

Who do you want to reach?

Consider what population you would like to serve and the educational or community deficiencies you wish to aid or resolve. There are deficiencies in every community so it is worth doing a needs assessment when deciding on the impact you would like to make. For the needs assessment, speak to the community members, industry partners, schools, colleges and students to find out where help is needed. Your purpose could be driven by factors as varied as standardised test scores, the need for workforce development, health crises, a wish to incorporate more arts in education or to help non-fluent English speakers.

Be mindful of access and equality in your decisions, be fair and balanced to make sure everyone who should be is included and represented. As I do a STEM programme for girls, I also do a STEM programme for boys. Will you be focusing on school districts that have limited resources and do not offer STEM courses, or schools that have students engaged in STEM subjects? Or will you try and reach both?

Location, location, location

It is possible to host outreach programmes anywhere that has sufficient space for the participants. But there are practicalities to consider such as transport links, parking and the availability of rooms for break-out sessions. Ideally, try to host such activities on the university campus since this brings added benefits in its impact on the participants. Campus-based activities offer:

  • A first visit to a university campus for many, in particular first-generation students, boosting the authenticity of the outreach experience, helping to familiarise them with what a campus can look and feel like and breaking down perceived barriers or fears about not belonging.
  • University campuses are designed to accommodate large and varied student populations to enable more expansive programmes with a range of facilities, from auditoriums and conference spaces to labs and classrooms.
  • There might be student clubs and organisations willing to support outreach activities on campus.
  • Campuses are usually designed to be easily accessible and navigable for everyone, no matter what their abilities. 

The question of costs

Outreach work inevitably incurs costs but how much can vary hugely according to the number of participants and nature of the activities. Plan well ahead to get an idea of how much funding you need to deliver your programme. Some key considerations include:

  • Number of participants: the larger the programme, the greater the costs.
  • Space rental: do the rooms or equipment you wish to use have an associated cost?
  • Food and refreshments: food is a nice addition and can be kept very simple but, if budgets are limited, ask participants to bring their own brown-bagged lunches.
  • Supplies and materials to support activities: these can include stationery, batteries, food items and whatever else it takes to make the projects come together successfully. Materials might be provided by the facilitators but, when working with student organisations, they often have limited resources. It is a good idea to budget for necessary supplies.
  • Transport: some school districts have limited funding and might request transport for participants. Finding a transport sponsor is a good idea. When you explain the importance and impact, it should not be difficult to find a sponsor.
  • Faculty participation: what role will faculty play in leading or supporting your outreach activities?

Where can you find funding?

Funding might come from your institution if the aims of the project fit with its priorities and policies. I cannot ask my university to fund Digital Divas since it only serves one gender and that goes against Title IX. Therefore, 100 per cent of my funding is from sponsors.

Focus on finding a sponsor whose mission supports the goals of the programme you want to offer. For Digital Divas and other initiatives focused on STEM education, I ask STEM organisations in my area to sponsor various parts of the programme. By supporting STEM education, we are aiding efforts to upskill a future workforce in areas of rising demand, so I am usually successful in receiving funding.

Who should be involved?

We aim to build understanding and confidence among participating girls through hands-on experience in STEM subjects. The break-out sessions are therefore led by women engaged in STEM at different levels including student groups such as the Society of Women Engineers or Women in Computer Science, faculty who teach STEM subjects and women who work in STEM professions.

Consider who is best placed to lead your planned activities. They will need to be a good communicator. This person should be able to connect with people from varied backgrounds to gain their support and trust. They will need to successfully engage teachers, parents, faculty, college students, industry professionals and donors. Alumni can help to provide success stories, in our case of women in STEM, to inspire participants and donors.

It might take time to get buy-in from the university community and STEM organisations. High schools, on the other hand, are always looking for higher education engagement so are likely to be keen to participate. Starting small and getting positive feedback and testimonials from initial cohorts will help to build support and momentum. You might soon find one programme is not enough to meet the interest from schools and a second programme is needed. This is a good problem to have.

Bia Hamed is director of K-12 STEM outreach at Eastern Michigan University.

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