Students vote for one of their peers to become a STEM advocate in their school. These Chief Science Officers select and promote STEM programming, connect with STEM organizations to bring STEM programming to their communities, or participate in local and state conversations on education and the workforce.

Hard. Boring. Uncool. How many times have students thought of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) this way? The answer is too often. Unfortunately, these stereotypes reduce student interest in STEM. When it comes to impacting the STEM landscape, some questions we should be asking include: How often do students champion STEM opportunities in schools and how often are students involved with educators, scientists, and policy makers in discussions about combating negative STEM stereotypes or impacting the jobs of the future? The answer is too rarely.

NOTE: This article was originally published on February 18, 2018, on the Connected Science Learning website. Click here to view the original article and images. 

This realization sparked the idea of putting 6th- through 12th-grade students at the center of efforts to promote STEM and use STEM to engage in community action. We asked what might happen if students could choose one of their own to be their STEM advocate. We also asked what might happen if students played a major role in selecting and promoting STEM programming in schools, connected with STEM organizations to bring STEM programming to their communities, or participated in local and state conversations on education and the workforce.

We hypothesized that the STEM landscape would be very different—and more productive—if students were given responsibility for promoting STEM in their schools, community, state, and even nationally. This follows Maslow’s theory of self-motivation, as the Chief Science Officer position fulfills the need to belong, builds self-esteem, and ultimately enables students to achieve their full potential in STEM activities (Maslow 1943).

Theoretical base of STEM identity

There are varying factors that may form a student’s perception of themselves in relation to STEM. Some examples include: the social perceptions of gender and how it impacts STEM capabilities; how students interact with the STEM community; and how gender roles, student academic performance, and engagement with the community and mentors encourage students’ involvement with STEM. Research has also explored age and other factors that influence the development of an individual’s STEM identity.

Studies indicate that students begin to formulate their interest and attitude toward STEM as early as middle school (Catsambis 1995; Lindahl 2007; Tai et al. 2006). Potvin and Hasni (2014) determined that in-school STEM interests decrease but out-of-school interest in STEM studies and careers increases for students in grades 5 through 11. Aschbacher, Ing, and Tsai (2013) indicate that young students who show an interest in science stay engaged, particularly if their environment encourages them to see themselves as future STEM professionals and promotes development of STEM identities. Other factors impact the development of young students’ interest in and attitudes toward STEM subjects as well.

It is generally accepted that family, teachers, and peers can greatly influence a student’s STEM interest and attitudes (Archer et al. 2012; Knezek, Christensen, and Tyler-Wood 2011). For example, research conducted by Furrer, Skinner, and Pitzer (2014) showed that teachers and peers have a strong motivational influence on students’ achievement. This finding points to a strong mechanism for using teacher and peer relationships to motivate students’ participation in STEM and build awareness of STEM education and career pathways.

Meet the Chief Science Officers

The Chief Science Officer (CSO) program is the first of its kind. Launched in 2015 by Arizona SciTech, it seeks to elevate awareness of and engagement in STEM, empower students to bring in-school and out-of-school educational opportunities to their peers, and ensure that CSOs are a respected voice within their communities. It builds on the student government model, with 6th- through 12th-grade students being elected by their peers to be their school’s STEM leader and community liaison.

CSOs are part of a cadre of student leaders who experience special leadership training, impact STEM opportunities in their school and the local community, and work as a collective cabinet to provide input and ideas to adult STEM leaders in the state or region. The program connects K–12, higher education, business, industry, civic, and nonprofit organizations to build a cohesive STEM culture and promote STEM awareness and education. The sheer number of students represented by the CSOs helps to engage high-level community, business, and government leaders. For example, CSOs have spoken at the Phoenix Corporate Volunteerism Group meeting, Arizona Technology Council Quarterly Board Meeting, and the State Farm Team Conference (which included members of State Farm’s national leadership team).

The inaugural 2015–2016 Arizona class consisted of 138 CSOs (58% female; 57% non-white; 45% Hispanic) elected from 78 schools and representing over 40,000 students. And word is quickly spreading about the program. In Arizona, 223 CSOs (44% female; 52% non-white; 36% Hispanic) were elected from 120 schools for the second year of the program (2016–2017), representing over 112,000 students. Outside of Arizona, over 36 organizations in 20 states have expressed interest in replicating the program.

Chief Science Officers
The second-year CSO class at the 2017 Summer Institute at Grand Canyon University.

The CSO experience

The CSO experience begins when a student wins his or her school election. All of these students are then brought together in a summer Leadership Training Institutethat includes a mix of personal growth and team-building opportunities and training in areas such as communications, planning, and working with others to prepare them for their roles.

Their deliverable is a detailed action plan for the coming year. The energy ignited at the Institute continues throughout the academic year in three ways:

First, CSOs support existing STEM programs on campus and identify new ones that interest students, ensuring these opportunities reflect their peers’ interests. Second, they advocate at city council and school board meetings, conferences, and local businesses for enhanced STEM opportunities for students in their school and community. In addition, they advocate to increase the regularity that students are at the table in discussions about STEM and education. As a regional cabinet, they participate in large-scale collective action opportunities. Third, CSOs have developed a YouTube channel to promote the CSO program by sharing their experiences with others.

Each CSO is expected to interact with fellow cabinet members and the online Canvas curriculum weekly; meet with school staff and “SciTech Jedi” mentors monthly ; and engage in at least one community event, an “all-call” statewide cabinet meeting, and one regional collaborative meeting quarterly. In addition, they are expected to:

  • develop a personal CSO online profile;
  • support at least one STEM project or event on their campus;
  • participate in at least one community conversation about STEM and education; and
  • publish at least two blog posts (select blog tab) about their CSO experiences on or off campus.

SciTech Jedi are STEM professionals that work with CSOs to provide real-world insights into STEM skills and careers and validate the importance of the CSO position.

CSO Victor from Pendergast District meets with a SciTech Jedi from a local STEM organization.

General elections as catalysts for school STEM culture

CSOs are elected, not appointed. This is important as it ensures that the CSO represents the student body. It also boosts the awareness and acceptance of STEM at the school. The CSO position is validated through the election process and thus has more traction and self-efficacy when working to bridge opportunities and events on and off campus. As the CSO voice becomes more prevalent in the community, it is anticipated that CSO elections will become increasingly more competitive, further validating the position as part of school STEM culture. In fact, several schools have reported a significant increase in the number of students running for the CSO position in their second season.

CSOs in school

CSOs serve as the student body’s voice for STEM at their schools, enhancing the core STEM curriculum by identifying the subjects and opportunities that appeal to their peers. This enables teachers to develop curriculum that is relevant and engaging, and also boosts awareness and acceptance of STEM for the entire student body. This includes using existing STEM interventions that, while proven, can easily get lost in a busy school. For example, programs such as robotics and code clubs often struggle to remain visible and viable in schools due to competing programs and staff/administrator workloads and turnover. CSOs can help determine if these programs resonate with students and provide feedback on how to make them better.

This student-led support embeds the activity in the school’s culture. Below are some examples of CSO-driven school activities:

  • CSOs at Phoenix Union High School District’s Metro Tech High School organized the 1st annual STEAM Spirit Week. Each day students learned why STEAM (STEM + the Arts) is relevant and were exposed to related careers;
  • Casa Grande High School CSOs co-planned and participated in their district’s annual Arizona SciTech Festival celebration;

Hamilton High School CSOs established a Science Club Council in collaboration with their SciTech Jedi mentors from Orbital ATK, Inc. The Council enables students to find clubs and internships and track accomplishments. They also began a Science Newsletter to highlight student achievements and are planning a Science Parents Night.

CSOs in the community

CSOs advocate for STEM opportunities in the community as well. For example, a team of five Chandler district middle and high school CSOs presented as part of Orbital ATK’s Stellar Speaker Series and received a full behind-the-scenes tour of the company. A team of seven CSOs presented at a regional STEM and workforce discussion spearheaded by the national Change the Equation and 100K in 10 initiatives. As a follow-up, CSOs were featured in Change the Equation’s national blog. CSOs have been featured in various public events, such as the formal launch of the 2017 Arizona SciTech Festival at the Cox/UA Connect2STEM Event. While students talk primarily about the relevance of STEM to them as students, the level of understanding and STEM knowledge that CSOs and their peers possess often surprises STEM professionals and other adults. Each of these experiences provided opportunities for CSOs to observe business norms and practice their skills, complementing classroom-based instruction.

CSOs engagement with STEM partners

CSOs are also streamlining the process of working with local STEM professionals and functioning as their school’s point people for external experts and organizations. Students identify or are matched with a SciTech Jedi mentor who provides expertise and support. These mentors ensure that activities are reasonable, appropriate, and successful, and they help CSOs navigate within a real-world context.

Business, STEM industry, and community leaders are embracing the CSO program as a worthy investment of their time and resources. For example, Metro Tech High School created a relationship with the Intel Corporation when its CSO teamed up with an Intel Jedi mentor. Other engagement examples include:

  • CSO Leadership Training Institutes at Grand Canyon University (GCU), Intel, Honeywell, State Farm, Flinn Foundation, Arizona State University (ASU), University of Advancing Technology (UAT), Freeport McMoRan, TGen, Orbital ATK, PADT, Drury Design, Castelazo Content, and Flying Over Time
  • Community mentors from State Farm, UAT, Honeywell, Orbital ATK, Intel, TGen, Pinnacle Transplant, and Maricopa Community College District
  • Infrastructure education from OnTop (servers), PerfOpt (computers), and EventInterface (event registration)
  • Site tours at ASU, UAT, University of Arizona, and Orbital ATK

CSOs as a community of practice

During the academic year, CSOs meet as a regional or statewide team. These meetings offer a peer support network and opportunities for expanding knowledge and experience, including improving communication skills, increasing confidence, and sharing common experiences. They enable CSOs to work together on collaborative projects. Examples of collective action projects include:

  • S. Congressman Raúl Grijalva, of the Committee on Education and the Workforce, worked with 55 CSOs to produce a brief about barriers to STEM careers and proposed solutions.
  • The Governor’s Education Policy Advisor Dawn Wallace worked with 110 CSOs on civic action opportunities.
  • Twelve North Valley CSOs worked with Representative Heather Carter on education issues that impede students entering the workforce.
  • Arizona State Governor Doug Ducey met with 190 CSOs to discuss STEM and civic action ideas around student voice, education, social issues, and health care.

Strategies to ensure student success

Given the lofty goals and myriad variables that might impact success (i.e., administrative and teacher turnover, differing school objectives, student graduation, economics, access to resources, transient student populations, and diverse student abilities), the CSO program has developed robust support systems. In addition to the Leadership Training Institute, in-field experiences, and collective action opportunities, the program includes a full-time coordinator, an online learning system (Canvas), best practice guides, commitment requirements from schools and parents or guardians, and cultural incentives.

Specifically, schools must commit to pay a program fee for each CSO, provide an on-site point of contact (usually a teacher), and hold a general election. Program costs are estimated at approximately $1,000 per CSO. Schools pay $400 of that cost and work with CSOs to seek sponsorships that offset additional costs. Program sponsors and grants offset costs as schools develop their own support infrastructure. In addition, a school administrator must endorse the program and agree to provide needed resources and support. This is important, as we have observed that schools with strong leadership support at the top have much stronger outcomes.

The Arizona SciTech program coordinator Susan Farretta, who has over 10 years’ experience in the school system and 15 years’ experience in STEM-related industries, supports local schools in implementing the program. Local schools now share best practices with each other, which has resulted in the development of continually growing relationships among them. Consultation with the schools and focus groups ensure that school administrators and faculty know what they are taking on. Focus group participants identified the need to develop a specific training for the schools and involved educators. The team is working with local school administrators to develop a best practice guide.

Additionally, each CSO’s parent or guardian must agree to provide basic support by signing media releases and travel authorizations, and sponsoring or chaperoning field trips. Cultural incentives include having an enhanced voice in the community, being empowered through election by their peers, gaining the ability to positively impact their school and community, getting one-of-a-kind career exposure opportunities, and interacting with STEM professionals. Opportunities for students to receive college credit or get internships through their work with the CSO program are also in the works.

Scaling the CSO project

To scale the project both in Arizona and beyond, Arizona SciTech is implementing a Regional Cabinet platform. The platform enables a consistent format, structure, cost, and growth while allowing local partners the flexibility to “make it their own.” Regional cabinets ensure:

  • Shared interests, challenges, and initiatives among students, schools, and community supporters;
  • Feasibility for cabinet members to meet three to four times annually;
  • Enhanced opportunities to convene local representatives (state and federal congress, city council, business, and community leaders, etc.); and
  • Connectivity between schools, especially primary schools that feed into secondary schools.

In Arizona, program leaders anticipate that a total of ten cabinets will develop over four to five years. These cabinets will consist of 1,500 CSOs from 750 schools. Given that Arizona has approximately 2,000 schools, ten cabinets will engage almost 37% of the school population. In addition to supporting the growth of the CSO program at the local level, Regional Cabinets will provide a mechanism for connecting CSOs nationally. In fact, the CSO program was acknowledged as part of President Obama’s Computer Science for All initiative in the January 30, 2016, fact sheet, President Obama Announces Computer Science For All Initiative. In addition, a team of 6 CSOs had the opportunity to present the program at the White House to former Science and Technology Advisors John Holdren and Megan Smith.

Nationally, over a dozen STEM leaders, including representatives in California, Oregon, Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, Missouri, Michigan, Georgia, North Carolina, and New York, are planning CSO programs in their states. This group of is piloting the intervention in new settings and ensuring transportability of the intervention. Although the growth rate and number of regional cabinets will vary by state, it is anticipated that an average of 10 regional cabinets per state will be implemented. Given each regional cabinet matures over approximately three seasons, a state should reach its full CSO program in about six years.

Evaluation of the Arizona CSO pilot

Evaluation of the CSO program is an integral element of the initiative. It has enabled Arizona SciTech to track the success and impact of the program. The study sample included all CSOs who won their school election, participated in the Leadership Training Institute, and completed pre- and post-assessment surveys and questionnaires. Data reveal that 66% of the schools involved are middle schools and there is a high representation of females (45%) and Hispanic students (43%). The first chart shows broad demographic impacts, the second shows impacts of the Leadership Training Institute, and the third shows impacts of the overall program.

CSO Leadership Training Institute analysis

A primary goal of the Leadership Training Institute is to build CSOs’ confidence in their ability to (1) communicate their role as a CSO, (2) carry out their job as a CSO, (3) connect with the community, and (4) make a STEM demonstration in the community. Each of these categories was measured through pre- and post-assessments distributed before and after the Leadership Training Institute activities. Using a five-point Likert scale, scores were totaled and then averaged between the instruments for each category.

First, CSOs assessed their confidence in communicating their role as a CSO to (a) fellow CSOs, (b) family members, (c) peers, (d) adults in the community, (e) elected officials, (f) and local news stations, as well as via (g) a blog post. It’s important that they can consistently communicate what the program is and are confident in their role as a CSO. During the summer institute, they are engaged in workshops to help them write their vision and action plan documents, engage in team building, and learn the Canvas Learning Management System. Results indicate a statistically significant increase from 3.44 to 4.15 with a p value < 0.0001.

Next, CSOs were asked to assess their connection to (a) peers, (b) their point-of-contact teachers, (c) fellow CSOs, (d) the program team, and (e) STEM professionals in the community. Given that CSOs work to influence their community, it is important to ensure they feel empowered to connect with various stakeholders. CSOs participated in workshops on subjects such as networking, SciTech exploration, and implementation strategies. Results indicate a statistically significant increase from 3.40 to 3.89 with a p value < 0.0001.

CSOs were also asked to assess their preparedness to (a) talk with their friends about STEM, (b) support a STEM event at their school, (c) grow the appeal of STEM at their school, (d) support a STEM initiative in their area, (e) support a statewide STEM initiative, and (f) collaborate with other CSOs on projects. This is important to assess if CSOs are ready to carry out their tasks during the academic year. Results indicate a statistically significant increase from 3.99 to 4.34 with a p value < 0.0001.

Notably, when the CSOs were asked to take action and engage stakeholders, they felt less confident than when asked about their roles and engagement with their peers. This might be an indication of shortcomings in workshops focused on implementation strategies and networking. Even though the mean change for stakeholder engagement is less then previous items, it is still significant.

Finally, CSOs were asked about their confidence presenting a STEM demonstration to their (a) fellow CSOs, (b) family, (c) peers, (d) adults in the community, and (e) local news station, as well as via (f) a blog post. This is an important assessment given that CSOs receive special training to excite others about STEM using short, high-energy demonstrations. Results indicate a statistically significant increase from 3.68 to 4.03 with a p value < 0.0001.

Presentation skills and training are provided as CSOs are expected to communicate STEM via scientific demonstrations and knowledge sharing. They participate in events such as science festivals, community STEM advocacy, and fundraising. Through these activities, they meet audiences from different cultural backgrounds, ages, professional statuses, etc. Presenting to myriad audiences is a challenging task. The significant change in mean scores indicates the successful intervention that the Leadership Training Institute has on the CSOs.

End-of-year assessment

At the end of the year, 45 of the 76 CSOs assessed their overall experience. This enabled CSOs to reflect upon how the program impacted their ability to fulfill their role and how their activities impacted their own STEM identity and their peers’ perceptions of STEM. Specifically, the assessment allowed them to evaluate (a) how their role increased their interest in STEM, (b) their personal progress, (c) their accomplishments, and (d) the number of peers they reached.

This assessment is important as advancing STEM identity in students increases the number of those entering and persisting in the STEM pathways. Research has produced varying definitions of identity in the context of STEM, such as an individual’s understanding of themselves as an individual STEM entity (Herrera et al. 2013); the interactions between an individual and the STEM community (Carlone and Johnson, 2007); the interaction between gender norms and social perceptions of science (Archer et al. 2012); and the fusion between institutional connectedness, gender role, student academic performance, and mentors in STEM (Capobianco, French, and Diefes-Dux 2012). Archer et al. (2012) also found that STEM identity in middle school predicts the likelihood of persistence in STEM coursework through college.

Results clearly indicate that participating students believe that being part of the CSO program increased their interest and understanding of science in everyday life with more than 82% indicating a 4 or 5 (Very or Super) on a five-point Likert scale. Similarly, more than 84% of students indicate a 4 or 5 with respect to an increased interest in college fields and awareness and interest in STEM careers. Finally, data indicate that approximately 64.5% of CSOs aspire to become community STEM leaders. These results indicate that CSOs begin to build their STEM identity through the program. Continued evaluation and research through a recent three-year NSF Learning in Formal and Informal Settings (DRL) award (#1615209) will provide insight into the program’s impact on sustained STEM identity.

When rating their personal progress as a CSO, students provided more modest responses. This is an unexpected, yet positive sign, indicating CSOs hold themselves to a high standard of personal progress. Of the categories asked, CSOs ranked the most progress with innovating what it means to be a CSO, with 69% indicating a 4 or 5 (Very or Super) on a five-point Likert scale. For the remainder of the categories, CSOs rated the progress of personal goals, being a community ambassador, addressing state challenges in STEM, ensuring student voices are heard in the community conversation about STEM, building community relationships, and inspiring their peers between 42% and 55%. More importantly, 12% or less rated their progress as “a little bit or not at all,” indicating that 88% of CSOs experienced a modest to high level of progress in each of the areas assessed.

CSOs were also asked, “What accomplishment are you most proud of as a CSO?” The following responses can be organized into categories related to accomplishment and influence.


  • Self-confidence/accomplishment: 10.7%
  • Met with my congressperson: 21.4%
  • I became a respected leader and a powerful representative: 14.3%
  • Just being a CSO in Arizona: 3.5%
  • I am proud that I was able to work with adults in the STEM field: 7.1%
  • I’m proud that I was chosen to become a CSO: 14.3%
  • Being a leader is what I’m most proud of: 10.7%
  • I got a cabinet leadership award: 3.5%
  • I learned more about science: 10.7%


  • Knowing that CSOs are known in the White House: 3.5%
  • Influencing others to participate in STEM: 17.9%
  • Making STEM more known at our school: 14.3%
  • Getting students interested in science: 14.3%
  • Getting students to engage in STEM: 3.5%
  • Convincing most of my school about the importance of STEM: 3.5%
  • Helping other people understand science: 7.0%

Finally, CSOs were asked to estimate the number of students they reached during their tenure as a CSO. Collectively, the 45 CSOs estimated reaching over 6,500 peers. Given the diversity of CSOs’ gender, race, socioeconomic status, and geography, and the schools and communities they represent, the CSO intervention has the potential for broadening participation of underserved and underrepresented students in STEM.

For instance, the 2015–2016 cohort consisted of 58% female and 42% male students, of which 45% were Hispanic, 43% were white, 7.3% were African American, 4% were Asian, and 0.7% were Native American. Of the 78 participating schools, 40 were Title I schools with 34 in Maricopa County (Phoenix metropolitan and surrounding area), three in Pinal County (rural, including the Gila River Indian Reservation) and three in Pima County (Tucson and surrounding area).

Overall findings

Year one results suggest that the CSO intervention effectively trains students in vital communication skills, increases their confidence in connecting with others, and builds interest in becoming STEM community leaders. Results also hint that the CSO intervention increases student interest in STEM and ignites their passion to pursue a STEM field in college and their career. A possible transformative outcome is that the program has the potential to increase the number of women and people from marginalized communities pursuing STEM careers nationally. Another important result is that CSOs “pay it forward” by effectively informing, engaging, and influencing their peers, teachers, administrators, and the broader community about the importance of STEM.

In addition, the program team noted some key lessons learned that led to more successful outcomes:

  • Importance of attending the Leadership Training Institute: 95% of CSOs attended the training institute. The 5% who did not need extra guidance and lacked a basic understanding of the goals of the program and their role.
  • Electing versus appointing CSOs: During the pilot, a small number of schools appointed their CSOs as opposed to holding an election. In most of these cases, the CSOs were not as effective at rallying their peers or community to engage in their projects as demonstrated by less peer participation and lower attendance at events. Some also felt like outliers when immersed in a community of elected CSOs.
  • School support of the project: There was a range in how much the school, teachers, principals, and districts supported the CSO concept. The program team found that the more engaged these entities were, the more empowered and successful CSOs were. For example, successful CSOs were readily transported to events, encouraged to explore the types of activities they could develop at their school, and empowered to make various types of connections in the community.
  • Engaging the community: Engaging SciTech Jedi or community mentors is an important strategy to not only enhance the CSO experience and skills but also fuel support for the CSO intervention in the broader community. Arizona SciTech program staff, school administrators, and points of contact screen SciTech Jedi and oversee all engagement with students. Currently, the CSO program provides Jedi directions to follow but not official training. However, a training manual is being developed with twelve national Rainmakers who have expressed an interest in launching the CSO program in their area.
  • Working as a community of practice: CSOs demonstrated a greater impact when working as a cabinet. This ranged from meeting with high-level government officials to developing collaborative ideas as a team to communicating regularly on the CSO learning management system.


This work presents the results of an innovative program designed to develop 6th- through 12th-grade students’ STEM leadership skills and provides a model for bridging in-school and out-of-school STEM learning. The program’s success is based on three foundational principles. First, students are self-motivated and participate in a competitive election to represent their school as STEM leaders. Second, program administrators and leaders in schools, families, businesses, STEM-related industries, and the community work together to support the students. Third, the program builds CSO competencies needed for success through extensive training and engagement. The most significant results were the improvement of STEM leadership and workforce skills for all CSOs, including the underrepresented female and Hispanic demographics, and the strong collaboration between all parties participating in the program, including STEM companies.

As with any pilot program, the CSO program faced a few problems. A major hurdle was providing adequate support to some CSOs. This included a lack of transportation and school or parent support. In some instances, community support was more difficult to obtain. A potential problem that the program might face in the future is the loss of motivated students who wish to join the program but do not win their school election. This can be overcome, in part, by establishing STEM leadership clubs that encourage broader participation for all students.

In summary, the CSO program provides a unique and promising approach for preparing young STEM leaders to share their love of STEM with their peers, families, communities, and local and national decision makers. Based upon strong interest across the country and the White House, the program team is working to expand the CSO intervention nationally. For readers looking to learn more about bringing a CSO cabinet to their region, please reach out to Dr. Jeremy Babendure at

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