Articles | Volume 5, issue 4
Research article
 | Highlight paper
14 Nov 2022
Research article | Highlight paper |  | 14 Nov 2022

Building confidence in STEM students through breaking (unseen) barriers

Philip J. Heron and Jamie A. Williams
Video abstract

Science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) subjects have historically struggled to be inclusive and accessible to students from diverse backgrounds. The field of geoscience, in particular, has also had challenges in diversity with respect to staff and student recruitment. The consequence of non-inclusive practices still propagates today, with certain demographics not engaging in STEM activities. As a result, there needs to be conscious efforts to adopt equity, diversity, and inclusive (EDI) initiatives for subjects such as geoscience to grow. In this article, we outline the steps we have taken to break down known (and unknown) barriers to education in the teaching of a science outreach course to a diverse student body. Our outreach course, Think Like A Scientist, has been running in a number of English prisons since 2019. Although the programme is tailored to the restrictive prison environment, the application of its core principles to education are fundamental EDI practices that could be beneficial to a wide audience. In this paper, we outline our reasoning for specific pedagogical choices in the classroom when working with students that have low confidence in STEM education, and we highlight the need for engagement that is not only relatable, accessible, and inclusive but also offers encouragement.

1 Introduction

A student's low confidence in their own ability can lead to non-engagement (e.g. low self-agency) in the classroom (Angus et al.2008; Legault et al.2006). In particular, science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) subjects have been shown to generate negativity amongst students (Holmes et al.2018), with the reasons behind such low self-agency being multifactorial. For instance, critical educational neuropsychological research (Billington2017; Damasio2000) has indicated how social, emotional, and cultural factors impacting disadvantaged students cannot be separated from a student's cognitive ability to learn within formal environments. Furthermore, research suggests that students who believe themselves not to “fit” into educational settings are more likely to perform poorly or to withdraw due to the impression they do not match the profile of students who usually succeed (e.g. “stereotype threat”, Steele and Aronson1995; Pennington et al.2016). This can be due to feelings of stigma (or “minority stress”, Meyer1995; Parker and Jones1999) that relate to race, religion, disability, economic status, sexuality, gender, or other intersecting cultural factors (Dowey et al.2021). This stigma can also be subtly reinforced in the language and hierarchies used in STEM classroom settings.

In this short commentary, we discuss a framework put in place to build student self-agency during the teaching of a STEM course in English prisons in 2019 (Heron2019, 2020). The course, called “Think Like A Scientist”, was designed to improve critical thinking and to encourage independent thought for students. The programme – the first of its kind in England – used short, impactful talks on science topics to bring new information to the class (where a number of subjects were geoscience focused, such as climate change, plate tectonics, natural hazards, and space missions). Students participated in seven different 2.5 h sessions and were encouraged to do assignments each week.

For prison learning, education and employment have been highlighted by the UK Government's Ministry of Justice as key points in reducing re-offending rates (Coates2016). However, due to restrictive prison environments (Rogers et al.2014; O'Brien et al.2021), a lack of funding for prison educational programmes, and (most importantly) the impact of prisoners' previous struggles with traditional classroom settings (Harlow2003), teaching in prison is a complex endeavour. As such, educational needs are largely unmet for those in custody (Geib et al.2011).

To overcome these obstacles, a key component of our teaching in prison was to align education to the needs of students that are harder to reach rather than having students adapt to the pace and structure of an inflexible education programme (von Stumm and Wertz2021). As a result, the focus of our course was to act as a stepping stone to more formal education (e.g. high school diplomas and undergraduate courses) through increasing student self-agency in the short and long term. The method we implemented is premised on the course not only being relatable, accessible, and inclusive but also offering encouragement (RAIE method).

In this paper, we outline the method (Sect. 2) for the analysis of our data (Sect. 3) alongside the relevant ethical considerations (Sect. 4). In the following sections, we breakdown the key insights that lead to the RAIE method based on the data analysis. In Sect. 5, we analyse why a topic needs to be relatable for student engagement. In Sect. 6, we outline what subtle changes to the traditional classroom setting could allow for more students to access education. In Sect. 7, we highlight what inclusive practices could help a student remain in the classroom after breaking down barriers to accessing education. Finally, in Sect. 8, we discuss the power of encouragement in educator–student interactions.

2 Method

The work here is based on both student feedback (through pre- and post-course questionnaires) and also our experiences as educators (either through analysing existing literature or through in-person discussions with people in prison). The main method of analysis from our collected data (e.g. course questionnaires) comes from a thematic analysis (adapted from the six-stage process outlined in Braun and Clarke2006) of the responses to open questions in terms of student feedback.

3 Data

We have included the qualitative feedback on how the students perceived the programme in the supplementary information. For the post-course questionnaires, the total responses across three sessions is n=20. We acknowledge that our sample size is low, and we are looking to create a longitudinal study for future Think Like A Scientist courses (and we welcome any advice on new questions that could provide insight that would be beneficial to the wider community). However, the restrictive prison environment often means that we cannot take physical objects (e.g. paper) in or out of most of the establishments (let alone have online access), so there are limits to the methods of data collection.

4 Ethics

Given the sensitive nature of our student group, we are also limited with the information we can gather for research. Indeed, there are significant ethical challenges regarding formal data collection from people in prison for academic purposes, and the provided questionnaires were the limit that the participating institutions would agree to. As a result, we do not ask any personal information about age and educational background (etc.) in our pre- and post-course questionnaires. However, these questions may stigmatise the potential learners (Steele and Aronson1995; Pennington et al.2016) on the first day of the course. By design, our data are qualitative rather than quantitative, as the complex intersections of the learner's age, gender, class, race, and/or background require a nuance that is potentially beyond quantitative analysis (Madill and Gough2008). Qualitative analysis can be more effective at prioritising the voice of the students (Tetnowski and Damico2001).

5 Relatable

By visiting successful prison education programmes during the development of our course, it was clear that learners engaged best when the material was relatable (e.g. classes related to criminology and law) (King et al.2018). This posed a challenge for more abstract STEM fields that appeared to be far from normal day-to-day life. Furthermore, as mentioned above regarding “stereotype threat” (Steele and Aronson1995; Pennington et al.2016), potential students may also find the scientists themselves difficult to relate to (e.g. coming from an “ivory tower”).

Although some of the course had material that is directly applicable to every day life (e.g. sleep and climate change), the majority of topics taught were not immediately relatable (e.g. space missions to Mars, earthquakes, robotics, the universe). However, to bridge the gap between student and STEM content, the course focused on how we think about a subject – a process which is inherently relatable. Instead of a standard passage of information from teacher to student, our course taught the “the scientific method” (Fig. 1) as a framework where students explore what they do not know about a subject and discuss how we can find out more. This method has been shown to improve critical thinking among students (Davenport Huyer et al.2020).

Figure 1The scientific method and examples. A framework for conducting scientific research is known as “the scientific method”. All scientific studies follow these basic principles, but they are applicable to everyday activities and can be used to improve critical thinking. Examples show the scaffolding technique to build up the levels of questioning (e.g. Vygotsky's sociocultural theory and his learning concept of the zone of proximal development, ZPD; Berk and Winsler1995). An important part is to understand that a negative result (e.g. not fully understanding a problem) is part of the process and can also be communicated.


For instance, each session starts by asking the group to list anything related to the main topic (e.g. what do we know about the solar system?). From here, we can understand the key areas to focus on and ask how we can find that out (e.g. do we need to visit Mars to check for life? Can we send robots? What would they look like? How would they work?).

By shifting the focus of the programme to be about how we think about a subject rather than what we know, the material is applicable to everyone. Crucially, this creates an open structure, rewarding exploration, and engagement over attainment, which is suggested to be positive for all learners' self-esteem and progression (Ustun and Eryilmaz2018; Saloviita2020; Hornby2020).

6 Accessible

A key part of our course is that it is not taught in the standard education classrooms – an arena where many of the target students have had previous negative experiences. A common place to hold the course is in the library, which is not only sufficiently neutral ground to engage difficult-to-reach learners but is also often carpeted to help with any sensory issues (Craswell et al.2021). The threshold of a traditional classroom could be an unseen barrier to a student accessing education – a scenario that can be widely applied (e.g. students from low-economic backgrounds not wanting to engage in an outreach event held in a 14th century Russell Group college).

Figure 2Accessible teaching. By making the equipment requirements for the course as basic as possible, there were no barriers to students accessing education resources. In Think Like A Scientist, only pen and paper were required. Photo credit: Philip J. Heron.


Recent critical education (Greenstein2015) and critical disability (Goodley et al.2018) literature references mainstream education “norms” throughout the Global North. These norms, often internalised and maintained subconsciously, may subtly and or more explicitly celebrate an “idealised” learner inhabiting a particular demographic, societal status, and learning profile, one who successfully progresses through a curriculum and pedagogy without requiring adaptation, who is not disabled or neurodivergent, is without learning differences, and who effortlessly relates to the prevalent cultural meanings and values of their educators (Greenstein2015; Goodley et al.2018).

A challenge here was to create course content that celebrated each student individually rather than revert to our mainstream education norms. For a behavioural, cognitive, and emotional engagement to be achieved for all learners, an open and dynamic teacher–learner relationship must be fostered, built upon sensitive understanding (and adjustment) to a learner's needs and social contexts (Darling-Hammond et al.2020; Breakey2006; Sanger2020). In the preparation of course material, it was important to simply acknowledge the intersectionality of potential students and to change the expectation of each submission of work based on the learner's needs. In class, the instructor would acknowledge that each student can bring individuality to the course through the open questions on scientific topics (see the Inclusive section). In addition, small acts of flattening the power dynamic within the prison environment can help to nurture a supportive learning landscape (e.g. making a coffee for students during the break).

We also considered a number of points related to language. Resources whilst teaching in prison are scarce, and often the only teaching aid available (apart from a pen and paper, Fig. 2) is language (which turns out to be key). If the language used was terminologically heavy or uses allegory, metaphor, or other forms of figurative or culturally specific language, this may have been difficult to process for many students. Potentially, this may have disadvantaged autistic students or those with learning differences (Kalandadze et al.2018). A positive step was to implement “plain-speak” English for universal accessibility, which meant using language and design strategies that make texts easier for target audiences to understand and use (Mazur2000; Garwood2014). In practice, this means not using technical words without a proper introduction. An example for discussing different types of volcanoes would be to avoid using the word viscosity in the initial comments, opting for “runny” or “thick” until low and high viscosity can be scaffolded in (Berk and Winsler1995).

The impact of applying plain language from the start of a course is that it allows students to be clear on the content immediately when it is presented rather than them not being unable to understand a technical word and potentially derailing the learning experience. Applying plain language has been beneficial in the medical profession when communicating care to patients (Warde et al.2018; Sagi et al.2021), and we create similarly accessible content through using plain-language summaries of scientific research (such as in the online magazine The Conversation). We also follow up by taking into consideration who and what was rewarded and prioritised in interactions with students (e.g. are we celebrating getting a correct answer or for asking a question of clarification?).

Furthermore, we taught practical examples of science in action in order to connect the student to the educational content through material that is relevant to cultural and life experiences (Cents-Boonstra et al.2021) – an example would be discussing climate change with reference to the impact of food choices (as this is something that is done every day) or using a natural hazard that captured the public's attention to introduce plate tectonic processes (e.g. Iceland's Eyjafjallajökul volcanic eruption of 2010 or the Hunga Tonga eruption and tsunami of 2022).

Many learners will continue to be excluded from learning opportunities in any classroom setting that does not take into consideration these accessibility issues, impacting not only their educational and professional progress but also their mental health and wellbeing (Tejerina-Arreal et al.2020).

7 Inclusive

Although a certificate from a university is offered on completion of our course, there was no formal assessment strategy linked to the programme. By breaking down the barrier of grading, an environment of open expression could begin to be created, allowing for more potential students to engage. Through the main focus of the course being on how an individual's mind works to tackle a problem, we were able to tailor the learning experience and bring education to the student (von Stumm and Wertz2021).

Group discussions of opinions on topics are fundamental to the class (Pompa2013). In our course, students were often asked to give their thoughts on current topics (after reading recent research) on which there is no scientific consensus (e.g. should we colonise Mars? Is there life outside our solar system?). As there is no right or wrong answer, the students were given a voice on cutting-edge science – and, in this regard, the resulting impact on a student's self-agency can be significant (Fig. 3).

Figure 3Student feedback on selected post-course questions. Full feedback from three courses are provided in the Supplement alongside pre- and post-course student questionnaire templates. Abbreviations stand for Strongly Agree (SA), Agree (A), Neutral (N), Disagree (D), and Strongly Disagree (SD).


As compared to a traditional classroom, these two strategies (e.g. not implementing formal examinations and asking “open” questions) produce a flattening of the power dynamic. Linking to the previously mentioned theories on “stereotype threat” (e.g. fear or anxiety of confirming a negative stereotype about one's social group, Steele and Aronson1995) and “minority stress” (e.g. stress faced by members of stigmatised minority groups), implementing these strategies could remove critical barriers (which teachers may or may not be aware of) to students' learning. Indeed, it has been recently highlighted that inclusive science communication could be crucial in addressing the systemic problems of inequitable access to (and engagement with) STEMM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and medicine) subjects (Canfield et al.2020). Careful thought is required when creating content and engaging with students if we would like to reach diverse audiences (Canfield et al.2020).

8 Encouragement

From the classes taught in prison, not all students feel comfortable in writing down their thoughts and submitting work. However, for those that do, the work is “marked” by highlighting the main points of their discussion and offering encouragement. Here, it was important to ignore spelling and grammar errors and to focus instead on the positive aspect of the student submitting thoughts and ideas (as discussed in the Accessibility section).

Incidentally, by setting a task to express their thought process rather than setting “testable” questions, the work submitted not only reflected upon the subject matter but also upon the student's personal experiences with the topic. For those who submit, the feedback can be “like receiving a prize”, as one student wrote in the course evaluation.

9 Conclusions

In this article, we have outlined our process for teaching STEM to students with unseen barriers to accessing their education pathway. Even though our course was designed with the restrictive and complex prison education system in mind, there is a wider application to this work, specifically in settings where students are not engaging in formal education due to low self-agency. Examples could be in running an outreach event or open day to students who encounter barriers due to their race, religion, disability, economic status, sexuality, gender, or other intersecting cultural factors.

Below, we outline a potential framework for breaking down educational barriers for students who (traditionally) do not engage:

  • create a neutral classroom dynamic (in both location and environment);

  • have the class focus on dialogue;

  • produce content that is relatable to everyday life;

  • remove the grading structure (where possible);

  • avoiding assumed previous knowledge;

  • avoid asking explicitly worded questions;

  • ask questions with no scientific consensus to generate discussion;

  • implement clean “plain-speak” English;

  • emphasise encouragement when marking submitted work.

This framework produces a dialogue-focused course that is not only relatable, accessible, and inclusive but also offers encouragement (RAIE method), which can allow students to build self-agency when learning STEM subjects.

Data availability

Student feedback from three courses as well as the pre-course and post-course questionnaire templates are available in the Supplement.


The supplement related to this article is available online at:

Author contributions

PJH and JAW conceived, planned, and wrote the project.

Competing interests

The contact author has declared that none of the authors has any competing interests.

Ethical statement

Prior to the commencement of Think Like A Scientist in English prisons, all documentation relating to data collection, data analysis, data usage, and data storage were reviewed and given approval by the participating institutions. All students were provided with extensive participant information prior to the start of the course, and students provided written consent to allow their feedback to be used. Student identities and contributions have been anonymised throughout the study.


Publisher's note: Copernicus Publications remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.


We would like to thank the students of Think Like A Scientist for their participation in the course. The course developed from conversations and collaborations with a number of people across many partnerships, including Cell Block Science (Mhairi Stewart), Inside-Out Prison Exchange Programme (Hannah King, Kate O'Brien, Josie Phillips, and Lori Pompa), Rosie Reynolds, Paula Street, Danielle George, Amber Lewis, Marianne Burrows, Bill Bryson, Ivan Hill, Stuart Corbridge, Andy Aplin, and Anna F. The authors would also like to thank the reviewers (Lucy Beattie, Julie Jebsen, Scott King) for their feedback in improving the paper.

Financial support

The work on prison education was part of a project that previously received funding from the European Union's Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Grant Agreement 749664 (Philip J. Heron). A European Geosciences Union (EGU) Outreach Award and a British Geophysical Association Outreach Award was also used to fund the project. We also acknowledge the support of the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC, funding reference number 72064744).

Review statement

This paper was edited by Sam Illingworth and Stephanie Zihms, and reviewed by Lucy Beattie and Julie Jebsen.


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Executive editor
Great to highlight this again to show what the support from the Outreach Award did and to showcase the lessons from this work.
Short summary
Science, technology, engineering, and maths subjects have historically struggled to be inclusive to students from diverse backgrounds. We outline here an outreach course designed to improve critical thinking for people in prison. Based on course feedback, we share advice for working with students who do not engage in formal education – specifically those who have low self-confidence. We focus on how to create a classroom dynamic that is accessible, inclusive and relatable to all students.
Final-revised paper