STEM Mentoring: Micro-messages Back »

Factors influencing the lives of our youth range from values and situations found in home lives to those in school/daycare and communities. These factors all work together to define perceptions of the surrounding world. With so many influencing components, it should be apparent that schools are not the only places that shape youth opinions of the science, technology, engineering, and math fields. Youth only spend around 20% of their time in the classroom, while this is influential time it is also vital that they can find positive STEM influences in their daily lives.

Controlling all aspects influencing our kids is not possible, but educators and parents can ensure that their youth have opportunities to participate in positive STEM programing. This can be done by enrolling them in programs like 4-H and Scouts that provide positive youth development and STEM activities. They can also enroll their youth in afterschool and summer programs that provide hands on STEM opportunities. Taking family and class trips to one the many science centers in the state is also a great way to expose youth to STEM.

However, attending these STEM programs is only effective if youth receive positive messages about STEM from the various role models in their lives. In order to serve as positive STEM role models, parents, educators, and even STEM professionals need to be aware of how they are ‘marketing’ STEM to students and how their messages are being perceived. They need to become aware of the micro-messages within their messages. Micro-messages are small, subtle, semi-conscious messages that come from choice of words, body language, the environment in which the conversation is held, omission of details, and feedback given. Micro-messages can be positive, micro-affirmations, or negative, micro-inequities, and they can often have a larger impact on youth perceptions than what is explicitly being said (Pollock, 2014).

These micro-messages are often products of implicit biases that may or may not be consciously known. Implicit biases are formed outside of our consciousness and stem from the brain’s adaptation to environmental influences. While individual awareness and full understanding of implicit biases may not exist, the impact they can have can be overcome as educators, parents, and professionals become more aware of their words and actions.

Some examples of different micro-inequities include:

Example 1: An educator is putting together a presentation featuring people from different STEM careers. All of the examples being used are of white males.

  • Issue: While it is often easier to find white male examples of engineers, scientists, or technicians, it makes it very difficult for girls and minorities to relate to that person and they may not see that career field as an option for them.
  • Solution: Whenever possible use a mixture of races and genders to represent the various STEM career paths.

Example 2: A family is taking advantage of the beautiful weather and hiking through the hills. Their children (a boy and girl) run ahead exploring the wilderness and any wildlife they may find. The mother calls after the little girl to take care not to get her dress dirty.

  • Issue: All too often boys and girls are held to different standards. It is expected that boys are going to get dirty and rip their pants, but to some it is inconceivable that a little girl should be allowed to do the same. While this one instance may not have a huge impact, a lifetime of small messages like this may eventually make the young girl feel like she cannot do the same things as the boys.
  • Solution: Encourage and allow children of both genders to participate in a wide variety of activities from arts to science.

Example 3: A student brings home a worksheet covered in red correction marks and a very poor grade. His parents scold him and say how disappointed they are in him.

  • Issue: By telling their son how disappointed they are in him, the parents may encourage him to work harder next time, but they also may be making him feel a lack of support. Sometimes even when students try their hardest, they make mistakes and don’t always come out with the top grades. As parents and educators it is our responsibility to let them know that mistakes are ‘OKAY’. It is through mistakes that the greatest learning opportunities can occur.
  • Solution: Rather than reprimanding their son for the poor grade, the parents should sit down with him, discuss the incorrect answers, and analyze his effort and preparation. Together they can help the son learn from his mistakes and strengthen is individual study skills so that he can improve on the next assignment or test.

Example 4: An engineer is invited to a classroom to speak about her profession. When asked about why she chose her career field, she responded with ‘Because I was good at math’.

  • Issue: It is true that math skills are vital for engineering; however, a response such as this gives youth a sense that they can only be an engineer if they are already good at math. If the student feels that they are not good at math, he or she may tune out what else the presenter has to say.
  • Solution: While the engineer responding may have partially chosen her career path based on her math skills, it is most likely not the only or main reason for choosing it. If she can focus on other reasons she is more likely to grab the interest of the youth and possibly inspire one of them to pursue a career in engineering, and a student with a passion and goal is more likely to work hard in a math course and improve their skills. Some alternative responses she could use include:
  •   ‘I chose to go into engineering because:
    • it is a career field that allows me to make a difference in the world.’
    • as an engineer I can be creative.’
    • engineering allows me to solve problems.’
    • I wanted to explore new opportunities.’

Once mentors are made aware that these micro-messages exist they can begin self-analysis and work towards aligning their goals with their micro-messages.

More Information

For more information on positive STEM messages and micro-messaging check out:


  • Pollock, Meagan. "STEM Careers for Every Student." STEMwise Career Conference. South Dakota Division of Career and Technical Education. Sioux Falls, SD. 5, May 2014.
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