How to Market to the STEM Student

STEM is an acronym that stands for the academic principles of “science, technology, engineering, and math,” sometimes extended as “STEMM” to also cover “medicine.” It’s become one of the hottest buzzwords in the 21st century, dominating discussions in education, industry, and commerce. It’s synonymous with the high-tech industry, which values STEM graduates for powering technology innovation and hence large parts of the economy.


Why Should You Care About STEM Education?

Bear in mind that the United States, in particular, has based a cornerstone of its economy on the technology industry. On the Forbes’ list of world billionaires, out of the top 15, 7 of them are technology company founders in the United States—including the founders of Google, Microsoft, Oracle, Facebook, and Amazon. STEM careers power 69% of US GDP as of January 2020, according to Eos science news. Skilled STEM careers represent one-third of the US job market. Simply put, our economy needs to keep up the supply of STEM graduates in order to flourish.

U.S. President Obama famously made it a platform, but before him, U.S. President George W. Bush launched the American Competitiveness Initiative to spur progress in STEM education and development. Regardless of administrations, STEM support for the economy has been a consistent agenda that shapes US policy on education, immigration, defense, and commerce. STEM promotion even extends into popular media; the Discovery Channel and long-running TV shows like Mythbusters bring popular science to the “edu-tainment” world.

To universities and colleges, STEM education is supported by programs initiated by organizations such as the National Science Foundation and the STEM Education Coalition, as well as grants supported by various corporations and other interests. The US DOE’s STEM section also has a section on funding opportunities for STEM education. Even without direct funding benefits, universities bask in good P.R. whenever they can celebrate a successful win for the global knowledge economy.

So now that we know why STEM education is such a hot commodity, how do we market to the STEM community? What kind of student chooses a STEM career? What will they look for in a school, and how does a university align its digital marketing campaign so the right students find them?

Bear with us, because this is truly a wild frontier! First, we need to inject some prerequisite study of this problem, as we embark on a safari to study the unique species that is the STEM major…


Unicorn Hunting

As much as the academic world glorifies STEM students, a shockingly small amount of research has gone into identifying natural STEM candidate students. A few researchers have explored this area:

Instead, most of the literature on STEM education has taken the opposite approach, asking how to mold more students into STEM candidates. More commonly the approach is to attract diverse students to STEM itself. Or how to attract students to STEM and keep them there. One community college president thinks the problem might be that we don’t have enough TV shows glorifying science.

Currently, the attitude seems to be that if we throw enough kids into a laboratory and put enough pressure on them, we’ll raise a new generation of science majors. Getting women into STEM is a huge concern. “Why are there so few women in STEM?” might as well be the title of a whole magazine. Increasing the number of minority STEM students is another urgent quest in academic literature.

We will have to leave behind this media circus for now, and openly speculate on the prospect that there are such things as people who naturally gravitate towards STEM fields.

We already have a whole bumper crop of these people; we just don’t have formal academic terms to recognize them. They are called “geeks,” “nerds,” and even “hackers,” originally pejorative terms that now have all been self-adopted as labels of pride. They are the people who gravitate towards the Maker Movement. They are the people who read Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid for fun. They are the people who ignore celebrity gossip but marked the passing of Stephen Hawking and John Conway.

Natural STEM candidates are the kids who ask for a Raspberry Pi for Christmas and build their own computer simulation in the video game Minecraft. If a kid starts out in Lego and graduates to building their own robot in Lego Mindstorms, that’s an excellent sign. And yes indeed, they are the Mythbusters fans!

If you’re trying to attract STEM candidates, a good first step is to develop a student persona. Spend time identifying demographic characteristics, behavioral traits, and common interests. Once you have that information, you can determine the questions they frequently ask, potential barriers that may prevent them from choosing your school, and what they consider a successful educational outcome. All of this information will enable you to craft communications and content that resonates with them and persuades them to choose your university.


MIT, Comic Cons, and Geek Culture

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology regularly tops any list of STEM-centric schools. MIT has become almost synonymous with STEM itself. When the creator of the board game Dungeons and Dragons, Gary Gynax, passed away, MIT students commemorated his passing with this replica of a 20-sided die in one of their infamous campus pranks:

Right there in the Wired article, the author notes “you’d expect MIT students to fully embrace the joys of Dungeons and Dragons.”

Wait, why is that a foregone conclusion? Everybody “knows” that STEM professionals prefer role-playing as a paladin too, say, watching Tiger King, but how did we come to this universally accepted belief?

We could go on listing more examples of stereotypical “geek” pastimes all day: the card game Magic: The Gathering, video games in general, Monty Python movies (so popular in STEM circles that a whole programming language is named after them). It’s easy to do this, but we seem to be more hesitant to infer in the other direction: Attend a comic book convention and recruit some STEM graduates.

Yes, it’s been done! Hill Air Force Base attended the Salt Lake Comic Con with exactly this inspiration. That’s not the only example. Passion for video games is a natural funnel into STEM careers, as some schools have discovered. There’s so much overlap between cult entertainment franchise fandom and STEM careers that a blog like “The Woke STEM Teacher” will use the TV series Game of Thrones as a template for teacher archetypes and not bat an eye.

So there seems to be a strong correlation between STEM careers and nerdy hobbies.

Before we get carried away with this notion, we should acknowledge the caveat that not everybody who is a stereotypical geek is actually interested in being an organic chemistry or engineering major. There is a strong correlation, but no causation. The most likely factor at play is that naturally gifted students who are adept at math, logic, and science seek out recreation that is more intellectually challenging. Games with a lot of dice and technical mechanics, TV series with far-flung science fiction concepts, and video games with a wide-open sandbox approach all require more gray cells to enjoy than their mainstream counterparts.

Logically, you should find as many STEM workers at a bowling alley or a golf course as you would at a board game store. In practice, just attend your local game store’s Warhammer 40K night and you’ll be amazed at how many STEM workers you’ll meet.

For a university trying to attract STEM candidates, MIT is an excellent example to follow. So is the imaginative lengths the US defense industry will go to ferret out potential engineers. While the exact methods aren’t always practical for every higher education institution to implement, it’s good to always look to the link between “geek culture” and STEM pursuits for inspiration.


Digital Marketing to STEM Students: Rich Media

The biggest aspect one will note common to all STEM field interests is that they’re the most adept internet users. They participate in social media, follow digital news outlets, download books onto Kindle, and regularly binge whole TV series on Netflix. Even within the demographic of young people in general, STEM candidates will have a more diverse digital media diet.

Let’s go back over that list of top STEM-focused schools and explore their media channels:

  • MIT – A news office with a mix of symposiums, summits, graduate addresses, keynote speakers, and STEM topics from 3D printing to solar eclipses to robotics to medical breakthroughs. Practically a TV channel in itself.
  • CalTech – With its cozy proximity to Silicon Valley, CalTech is a natural arena for technology topics. Machine learning lectures are among its most popular content.
  • Harvey Mudd College – Aggressively pursues scientist and engineer focus. Note the “Women in Computer Science” series as well as the launch party for the video game Starcraft.
  • Johns Hopkins University – With a focus on medical and biological sciences, video topics cover research on leukemia, Alzheimer’s, and PTSD treatments, nursing careers, and the COVID-19 viral pandemic of 2020.
  • Carnegie Mellon – A diverse approach with equal emphasis on arts and sciences, this channel is a potpourri of math lectures, Bill Gates keynotes, music theater, and AI poker playing algorithms.

The top 5 non-defense STEM-focused institutions give us more than enough examples and inspiration for video content. In shaping a digital marketing campaign for a college or university to draw STEM attention, we see a heavy focus on cutting-edge research and an eye on the future.


Promotion of STEM Careers in Digital Marketing

Emerson Electric is a company that depends heavily upon STEM majors for its staff. So it launched an “I Love STEM” marketing campaign. They partnered with Hank Green, an online “science nerd” with a social media following (he is one half of the Green Brothers behind the wonderful YouTube series Crash Course). Emerson Electric aired a TV ad on—wait for it—the TV show The Big Bang Theory, which at least seeks a STEM-favored audience, albeit a little too self-consciously. They bought air time in key areas around the same universities where Emerson recruits talent.

That gave then access to some 8 million YouTube fans, 18 million Big Bang Theory fans, and some social media buzz. Emerson CEO Kathy Bell reported it as “the most well-received thing we’ve done,” and that “the media response to it has been incredibly rewarding.”

This is a great case study in STEM marketing all on its own. In addition, it demonstrates that business interests are a reliable ally to universities with a STEM focus. Students do keep an eye on the job market when they are determining their academic pursuits, after all, and having a job offer or two waiting for them never hurt a college’s reputation.

The take-away is that aligning a university with corporate interests can be helpful to nurture the smooth flow of STEM recruits. Aside from that, the other takeaway is that marketing to natural STEM candidates on their own turf works wonders.


Promotion of Resources in STEM Digital Marketing

In a National Center for Biotechnology (NCBI) paper on “Ingredients for Success in STEM,” we get a good framework for the definition of a STEM promoting environment. It turns out that fostering a STEM student is a long-reaching process, culminating from a lifetime of guiding habits of mind, access to information, self-confidence, and skill-building.

Apparently, there’s a shortfall of this kind of nurturing. According to the Student Research Foundation, 60% of college students drop out of STEM programs. The blame for this is placed upon a lack of adequate preparation in high school. This retention problem is widespread, even to where K-12 education has issues with it.

That’s a shame, but one thing that higher education institutions can do to fix this problem is to offer more resources for STEM students. The Network of STEM Education Centers recommends themes on building a successful STEM center on campus such as “learning communities that draw from across departments, seminars, book groups, workshops, and courses.”

How does this impact STEM marketing? If you have resources to support STEM courses, promote them! Reassure students that they’re not faced with cramming calculus on their own. Your marketing campaign should assure them that there’s no STEM student left behind. Advertise research programs, study groups, and video lectures. Here’s where you need to make a heartfelt pitch to candidates that your institution isn’t just recruiting, it’s graduating. Let no success go unmentioned on your advertising channels.


Remote Learning in STEM Education

The thing about STEM topics is that most of them traffic in abstract concepts. It’s rare that a course in artificial intelligence learning algorithms will require a field trip, except perhaps a visit to a server room. You can learn engineering principles and laws of physics anywhere; as a matter of fact, most STEM fields benefit from computer access anyway. With so much depending upon raw data and linear learning, remote learning is a natural fit.

Software companies have even joined forces, releasing free software to facilitate online learning of STEM courses. The 2020 COVID-19 pandemic spurred academic institutions to turn to online learning in unprecedented numbers. And for the final word on STEM teaching, MIT’s OpenCourseware was doing remote learning before anybody else was aware of the term.

Making remote learning accessible boosts your brand with STEM students in a number of ways. As we’ve just seen with MIT, it promotes itself. Marketing online learning helps you reach more STEM candidates. On top of this, you can promote remote education in conjunction with the above points (video and rich media, support resources), for a fully rounded campaign of STEM learning that makes full use of technology.

One more note about STEM students. They tend to have progressive views, in that they like technological progress and look forward to the day when engineering solves all our problems. The environmentally conscious among them might appreciate remote learning simply because they don’t have to burn gas to get there in person.


Final Summation of Higher Education STEM Marketing

To attract STEM recruits, an institution should implement the following in its digital marketing:

  • Use media to create an inspiring STEM brand for the campus
  • Highlight the local career prospects for STEM grads
  • Tailor distinctive marketing campaigns to appeal to STEM students’ niche interests
  • Stay active on social media to reach STEM candidates
  • Promote your learning resources and solutions
  • Develop plans to address remote learning

If nothing else, large-scale disasters such as the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic should teach us a sobering lesson about the importance of promoting STEM education. So should persistent crises like global climate change, natural disasters, and technology security shortfalls. In a nutshell, we need fewer quarterbacks and more lab techs. Forbes points out lessons such as “we must learn to listen to science.”

For the nation that put a man on the moon and put a combination computer and communications device in the hands of every citizen, you would think “listen to science” was too obvious a point to utter out loud. But here we are. This is why STEM marketing for higher education is so much more than a business proposal. It falls upon academic institutions to literally lead society back to the enlightenment.


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