“Our generation is set to inherit a complicated world with challenges we did not create; now is the time to start listening to us.” – Henrietta and Emerald, 2022 Flight Crew
Most policymakers and educators grew up during times that look vastly different from the world we live in today. Self-driving cars or chat GPT were merely futuristic ideas meant for fictional movies like Back to the Future or cartoons like The Jetsons. Young people now have a technological fluency that wasn’t a native language for so many adults. They grew up in a world with access to information at their actual fingertips on smartphones. Young people will also grow up to inherit a world that they have had very little input on thus far.
In June, STEM Next held the signature event of its Million Girls Moonshot Initiative – Girls Build Solutions™. The celebration brought together local, state, and national STEM leaders to learn from one another and youth ambassadors about the power of girls in STEM. The Million Girls Moonshot Flight Crew – forty-four young people representing 37 states, spoke in front of hundreds about their impactful STEM experiences in afterschool and summer programs. By showcasing their work to overcome challenges and address problems within their communities, the Flight Crew illustrated exactly why we need to engage more young women in STEM.
If Girls Build Solutions™ showed us anything, it is that we must incorporate the voices of young people into our educational systems in order to garner the most innovative, forward-thinking ideas.
Youth voice is an invaluable tool in the transformation of education policy. Together, we will look at some of the most promising ways youth voices can be incorporated into programming and how their stories can demonstrate significant impact in ways that numbers alone cannot.
Provide Real Leadership Roles
Creating youth advisory councils, committees, or boards are transparent ways to give defined leadership roles to young people. Youth councils can collaborate with existing boards to provide insights and recommendations on programming decisions and new ideas. Existing boards might also incorporate a position(s) for youth representatives to help with general decision-making or policies.
Leadership roles offer opportunities for youth’s perspectives to be heard beyond the walls of your organization. This can be a clear way for legislators and other local leaders to learn more about your work and its impact on young people in the community.
Example: At the 2023 Nita M. Lowey 21st Century Community Learning Centers (21st CCLC) Summer Symposium, Million Girls Moonshot Flight Crew members shared their experiences with hundreds of leaders from around the country. Kaiya from Alabama offered a compelling example of students being given small budgets in their afterschool program to design a space that would be most welcoming for young people. Not only did the experience give students experiences with budgets, but it also allowed them to create a space that they were excited to visit and spend time in. Kaiya shared that the opportunity allowed her to feel heard, respected, and part of a community.
Build Confidence and Trust
By offering consistent means of providing feedback, adults can establish a regular base of communication with the young people they serve. Two-way conversation channels give an authentic, real-time representation of how youth are feeling. This allows adults to be responsive to meet additional needs or shift practices in the most relevant ways.
When youth know where to go to share their experiences and that their feedback will be taken into consideration, a foundation of trust is built and young people are more likely to continue engaging. Additionally, youth can feel empowered by these experiences, especially in spaces where they might have been ignored previously. This builds confidence and creates a sense of belonging. Safe spaces that cause young people to feel valued and heard promote better learning outcomes and increase their development of skills.
Example: The Million Girls Moonshot Flight Crew was established to elevate and inspire young people in out-of-school STEM. Their experiences have provided much-needed insight into how a sense of belonging is critical to learning.
Flight Crew member, MacKenzie Glover of South Carolina, shared her personal STEM story with more than 200 STEM stakeholders from 30 states and territories as part of the Department of Education’s YOU Belong in STEM National Coordinating Conference.
“At first, I was a bit skeptical…(STEM) has become a part of me over time.” MacKenzie’s testimony reflected the encouragement she felt from educators, family, and peers to try robotics. Despite sometimes being the “only” in the room, MacKenzie persisted in STEM, increased her confidence, and now holds STEM as a key part of her identity.
Recognizing the importance of creating a sense of belonging, YOU Belong in STEM was launched by the Department of Education in December 2022 to energize education stakeholders into:
- Ensuring all PreK to higher education students excel in rigorous, relevant, and joyful STEM learning.
- Developing and supporting STEM educators to join, grow, and stay in the STEM field.
- Investing in STEM education strategically and sufficiently using ARP and other federal, state, and local funds.
Prepare Adults to Listen
Sometimes the hardest thing to do is to unlearn something. There are a dozen reasons why adults might have a hard time listening to young people – from authority bias to a fear of losing control to assumed inexperience. These beliefs can interfere with the ability to create meaningful opportunities for youth to offer their perspectives. With thoughtful consideration, adult leaders can find ways for students to offer their ideas and feedback in a substantial manner.
The best thing to do is to start small, especially if this is a new idea or if there is some resistance. Offer opportunities for leaders to reflect on their listening styles and model new behaviors that demonstrate respectful ways of communicating across generations. Once your program has gotten some experience, try expanding the types of conversations. For example, you might invite your local legislator to visit your program site and learn firsthand about your impact from students.
Example: Sophia, a 2023 Flight Crew member, recently gave remarks about the importance of afterschool STEM at the Senate Afterschool Caucus briefing. By sharing her transformational experiences in afterschool and summer programs, Sophia made the direct connection between engaging in STEM activities outside of the classroom and future STEM career interests. Policymakers could see the direct impact of federal dollars like the American Rescue Plan funding on young people and the future economy.
Incorporating youth voices into policies and educational opportunities is the only way to ensure a better future for us all. The power of their perspectives and ideas can keep us at the cutting edge of innovation and create a more inclusive and equitable society. By mobilizing a variety of perspectives, we can address the most pressing issues facing our communities today.