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Social media is a must for America’s STEM future

Social media has become an integral and prevalent part of our society, especially within the younger generations.

Over the last several decades, the United States has declined as an economic and educational global leader in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). To regain economic success and global competitiveness in these fields, government at all levels should launch campaigns that raise STEM awareness and increase student engagement. Actively leveraging social media channels is one potential path to drive K-12 excitement in STEM education and jobs through challenges.

According to the American Council for Technology and Industry Advisory Council’s (ACT-IAC) Quadrennial Government Technology Review, only about a third of bachelor’s degrees earned in the U.S. are in a STEM field, compared to more than half of university degrees earned in China and Japan. With the decline in K-12 interest and engagement in these fields, the U.S. may likely continue to fall short on maintaining an adequate pipeline of STEM-educated professionals. But just how troubling is this situation, and what does it mean for the nation and our future?

Jobs in STEM are increasing three times faster than jobs in the rest of the economy and as a result, by 2018, the U.S. faces a projected deficit of 230,000 qualified advanced-degree STEM professionals. To remain competitive, the U.S. needs to close the gap between the knowledge and skills needed in STEM, and the number of available professionals to fill those needs.

(Next page: How social media is taking root—and how it can help STEM fields)
To help address this alarming trend, ACT-IAC produced a paper, “Educating our Workforce for Today’s Job in Science and Technology,” which gave the Obama administration extensive analysis and actionable recommendations to tackle this silent crisis, such as providing online broadband access to improve digital literacy, establishing a national challenge, and creating measurable training methodologies to determine the outcomes of STEM education initiatives. One potential path to help drive STEM education reform is for government, at all levels, to start actively creating social media strategies to elicit interest and engagement in K-12 students.

Social media has become an integral and prevalent part of our society, especially within the younger generations. According to a 2011 survey by the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project, 95 percent of American teens use the internet, and of that group, 80 percent are present on an online social networking site. As youth in the U.S. continue to use social media to communicate with one another, a greater emphasis should be put on leveraging social network platforms to help promote cross-discipline interaction among students and the government agencies invested in the future state of our STEM workforce.

Social media for sparking STEM engagement

Agencies should prioritize the implementation of social media tools such as Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, Vine, and Google+ to issue statewide STEM education challenges in K-12. STEM professionals, such as astronauts, data scientists, and engineers within government agencies can issue an everyday challenge that they face via social media, asking teachers and students to help them come up with solutions to address the problem. For younger students, teachers could serve as the primary social media conduit to help avoid any potential concerns around security and privacy.

The STEM professional serving as the primary contact of the competition could provide frequent updates with tips and new ideas for addressing the challenge, as well as engage with students via an assigned Twitter handle and hashtag to continually drive the conversation and ideas. Agencies could host monthly Google+ hangouts, presenting opportunities for classrooms to chat face-to-face with STEM professionals in order to answer students’ questions and provide real-time tips. The duration and frequency of challenges would depend on the grade level, with shorter time frames for younger students. By using social media in the classroom, students and teachers would have a more engaging and personal interaction with STEM professionals.

To build tangible movement and interest in the STEM fields, the challenge and social media content should:

  • Be realistic and interactive – Agencies should develop challenges that are both practical and engaging. This can better equip students to deliver real life solutions when they enter the workplace, while simultaneously developing interest in STEM careers. The White House recently hosted its third annual science fair, honoring 100 student winners of STEM competitions from more than 40 states. The White House maintained an interactive fair by promoting the event via Twitter, as well as taking the opportunity to produce its first short-form, looping video-using Vine.
  • Create a sense of accountability – Challenges should make students feel responsible for creating thoughtful solutions. For example, while not targeted towards students, in 2012, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) issued a challenge to individuals who could use their skills with technology to help public health experts get the most out of social media. Using open source Twitter data, individuals were challenged to create a web-based application that would automatically deliver a list of the top five trending illnesses from a specified geographic area, which would be sent directly to state and local public health practitioners. At the core of this challenge, HHS created a sense of accountability in individuals by helping to improve and address public health.
  • Incorporate incentives – Using social media tools to promote and facilitate challenges may not be enough to attract and retain classroom participation. Challenges should be incentivized with awards such as winners getting to meet the STEM professional involved in the competition, or possibly helping the professional/agency implement the solution.

(Next page: How social media can help STEM ‘challenges’)
Through the use of social monitoring and analytics, school systems, local, state, and the federal government can gain a deeper understanding of students’ overall sentiment toward STEM by tracking and listening to the online conversations around the challenges. In performing sentiment analysis, agencies could more effectively monitor and determine the success and outcomes of the challenges over time as a means of driving STEM excitement and engagement among K-12 students.

Leveraging social media to organize STEM ‘challenges’

In addition to the White House, a few agencies already employ challenges for students to solve real problems. NASA uses social media tools to engage with citizens and inspire an interest in STEM, as well as promote opportunities for students and teachers to participate in challenges via NASA Education. NASA currently has nearly 300,000 subscribers on YouTube and around 4 million followers on Twitter, and has held more than 50 social media events over the past four years to provide followers with direct access to what their STEM professionals are currently working on.

On February 22, NASA held its first official Google+ hangout where more than a thousand participants from around the world asked questions to astronauts on the International Space Station. Participants included K-12 science classrooms. NASA already has taken the lead in organizing challenges, as well as having social media strategies in place. By leveraging their social strategy to drive STEM challenges in schools, they would pioneer this integral educational platform.

Many Americans consider the U.S. a leader in STEM education and jobs, but the reality is, unfortunately, the opposite. As social media becomes an ever more important part of our culture, we should reach out to prospective STEM participants in the world they live in.  By leveraging social media to drive government STEM challenges in school-aged children, we can effectively generate excitement, interest, and most importantly, long-life knowledge in STEM education.

Wendy Henry is a member of the Quadrennial Government Technology Review steering committee at the Industry Advisory Council (IAC). She is also a Deloitte Consulting Specialist Leader.

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