Learning from what doesn't work
Designing effective interventions to help give young people more exposure to innovation isn’t easy - as we know from our own experience. In late 2009, Nesta launched idiscover, a programme that aimed to help young people increase their innovative skills and ambition.
The idea was to give young people the opportunity to choose experiential learning experiences that would help them get the skills they need for the future. Participants each received credits of up to £200 per term to book places on a range of education experiences covering science, technology, engineering, maths, enterprise and the creative sector.
We piloted idiscover until July 2011 in selected schools in London, Manchester and the Scottish Highlands. Over 2,300 young people took part, with 92% booking at least one learning experience as part of the programme.
We commissioned external evaluators to capture the impact of, and learning from, the programme. They found that the programme “generated considerable excitement but apparently limited impact”. Schools welcomed the scheme and overall, young people enjoyed the experience. However, the programme did not create a measurable change in young people’s self-assessed creativity and innovation skills.
The programme’s theory of change assumed that giving young people the choice of experiences would help create a market for experiential learning, as well as getting young people more engaged in education and helping to improve their skills and attainment. However, in practice, choice was motivating for some young people, but challenging for others, who needed support and guidance. Young people often picked experiences without knowing much about what they would involve, or because their friends had chosen them. The quality of the experiences themselves varied, and schools found it hard to link what students learned back to the curriculum. Meanwhile, the goal to stimulate more supply of experiential learning experiences was probably over-ambitious, given the relatively small scale of the programme.
idiscover was an evidence-informed programme with a well-developed theory of change, but it still failed to create a positive impact. It highlights a wider issue: in general, programmes are successful in developing activities that are fun and engaging but there is limited evidence that this translates to longer lasting outcomes. For example, “STEM by stealth” approaches, whilst generally enjoyable for students (especially younger children), can risk obscuring the point of the intervention and failing to connect learners’ experiences to the “official” STEM teaching they encounter at school and therefore limiting how far students can convert their experiences into recognisable capital.
It is also worth bearing in mind that some approaches might even have adverse effects on young people’s attitudes and motivation. Stakeholders we consulted for this project highlighted the risk that invention schemes could perpetuate stereotypes instead of breaking them down, for example by suggesting an “ideal identity” (e.g. giving the impression that only the brainiest or most “science-y” students should take part).
One key problem is that the long term outcomes - becoming an inventor, for example - are very hard to track. A shared outcome model for invention schemes, defining intermediate steps (or ‘proximal outcomes’) that indicate a greater likelihood to participate in innovation, would be valuable. This is a point we return to in our recommendations.
 Nunes, T, Bryant, P, Strand, S, Hillier, J, Barros, R and Miller-Friedmann, J. (2017) Review of SES and Science Learning in Formal Educational Settings. A Report Prepared for the EEF and the Royal Society.
 Hitchin, J, Horvath, T and Petie, O (2017) Science and the youth sector Context matters for disadvantaged young people and informal science activities. Wellcome Trust. Available at: https://wellcome.ac.uk/sites/default/files/science-and-the-youth-sector-context-matters-for-disadvantaged-young-people.pdf. [Accessed 4.12.18]