Science Out of the Box
the box

Exploring Pathways to Relevance for the Millennial Generation

INTRODUCTION

Dear Colleagues,

The National Academy of Sciences’ LabX program came into existence in 2017 with a directive to develop programming meant to engage with a young-adult (18-37 years old) target audience who are active decision-makers and whose actions impact current and future policies. While conducting preliminary research, the LabX staff and advisory board discovered that available research on young adults’ relationship with science was sadly lacking in detail, beyond obvious conclusions about high levels of interest in technology and social experiences.[1,2]

To fill these knowledge gaps, gain a deeper understanding of the young adult population in the U.S., and identify potential engagement mechanisms, LabX partnered with Slover Linett Audience Research Inc. to design and implement a national survey of the target age group. Undertaken in 2018, the survey investigated the interests, actions, and perceptions of young adults, both in general and in relation to science, to determine how (if at all) science fits, and could fit, in their world.

We’re very pleased to share the results from the survey in this report. The findings point toward several high-potential opportunities for programming that we feel will benefit the entire public science engagement community. There are several intriguing potential threads to pursue, as well as paths to avoid.

LabX intends to use the survey results as a starting point from which to investigate different potential topic areas and experiment with approaches to engagement. Consistent with achieving LabX’s vision of “a world in which young adults actively use the relevant products and processes of science to inform their problem solving and decision making,” we have decided to focus our efforts on the moderate science affinity group identified by the survey as our target audience. We hope that all organizations are similarly able to utilize the information contained within this report for their own purposes.

By sharing this information with colleagues, we are aiming to contribute to a collective effort that creates relevant, effective science programming which will engage new, more diverse audiences and have a substantial impact on our world. We welcome and encourage opportunities for collaboration, so please feel free to get in touch with me if you are interested.

Sincerely,

Geoff Hunt
Geoff Hunt
Director, LabX


1. http://www.themillennialimpact.com/
2. https://www.visioncritical.com/resources/the-everything-guide-to-millennials
METHODOLOGY

Slover Linett collected data in partnership with NORC’s AmeriSpeak panel, targeting a representative sample of 18 to 37-year-olds in the United States. AmeriSpeak is recognized as a leader in data quality among U.S. online survey panels, in part because it supplements the online surveys with phone follow-up to achieve high response rates. The panel has particularly high coverage of hard-to-reach populations, such as those living in rural locations.

The only screening requirement for participation in this English-only survey was the respondent’s age (18 to 37 years old). This is broader than the age range of the “millennial” generation, which in 2018 was 22–37. We also wanted to include 18–21 year olds, members of “Gen Z,” because of LabX’s interest in engaging college students. We received 1,003 high-quality responses to the survey between September 11 and September 27, 2018 from a pool of 3,993 panel members (for a response rate of 25.1%). NORC statisticians weighted the sample along a number of dimensions including age, race/ethnicity, gender, education status, and census division. The final margin of error of the weighted sample is 4.3%. The survey questions can be found here.


RESPONDENT DEMOGRAPHICS

18-37

Age range of respondents

1,003

Number of high-quality responses received from the survey

INCOME

Less than $25k $$$ $25k - $49.9k 0% 50% 25% $50k - $99.9k $100k or more 16% 26% 26% 32%
Compare to total US population

RACE

chart-race 21% HISPANIC 55% WHITE 4% MULTIRACIAL 14% BLACK 5% ASIAN 2% OTHER
Compare to total US population
FINDINGS & IMPLICATIONS

THE CONTEXT FOR SCIENCE

The category of “science” is, of course, broad and varied, and that complexity is reflected in the ways young adults view science and its relevance to their lives. We did not define science—or any other terms—for respondents in the survey. Instead, we asked about science topics and other related and unrelated content areas, then built our picture of science relevance and connection from the full pattern of survey responses.

Interest in Science


50% of young adults believe that science makes their lives better and see the value of science’s influence on the world around them, findings that resonate with the Science & Engineering Indicators measured by the National Science Foundation [1]. Similarly, we found that about half of young adults (52%) are curious about how things work.

Percentage of young adults who strongly agree with the statement...

52%

I'm intrigued by how things work

50%

I believe scientific advancements make my life better

36%

I enjoy radio shows/movies/TV programs/podcasts that are science- or technology- focused

33%

I base my understanding of the world on what I can tell from scientific evidence

30%

I look out for news on emerging technologies

11%

I don’t think about science very much

9%

I personally find scientific topics to be dry or boring

By the same token, the majority of young adults don’t immediately or actively identify themselves as science-interested. About a third do signal a strong interest in “science” as a category, though not surprisingly a greater proportion are interested in music, TV & movies, travel, and a few other subjects.

What kinds of things interest you?

Image Map

Millennials interested in science are particularly likely to also have adjacent interests in technology and nature.

Millennials interested in technology are much more likely to also be interested in science than in nature.

Millennials interested in nature have the lowest level of crossover interest (to the areas of science and technology).

Science Affinity


In order to drill down deeper into our young-adult target audience, we created a composite “science affinity” score. Derived from respondents’ general attitudes and beliefs about science, science affinity appears to be a measure of implicit interest in, or connection to, science that is separate from a stated, conscious interest in science.

The Science Affinity Score

To create the science affinity score, we used factor analysis across responses to the following seven attitudinal and self-description items. This composite score, created through factor analysis, explains almost half (48%) of the variance in the seven individual scale items.

  • I look out for news on emerging technologies.
  • I enjoy radio shows/movies/TV programs/podcasts that are science-or technology-focused
  • I’m intrigued by how things work
  • I base my understanding of the world on what I can tell from scientific evidence
  • I believe that scientific advancements make my life better
  • I personally find scientific topics to be dry or boring
  • I don’t think about science very much

LEVELS


For reporting, we divided the science-affinity factor scores into three equally sized groups, labeled simply low, moderate, and high science affinity. We then profiled each group based on how they answered other questions on the survey. Their distinct interests and preferences suggest potential pathways along which LabX’s programming can engage specific audience segments in relevant ways.

About Science Affinity Profile Levels

Young adults who see value and relevance in topics implicitly related to science—the group we’re calling high science affinity—are likely to have both personal and professional connections to the topic. As we’d expect, they’re more interested than others in attending science-themed events. They also tend to be highly curious and motivated by opportunities to learn, particularly when they can do so in a fun, social way, perhaps via a “gamified” experience. Young adults with high science affinity tend to trust and rely on expert sources of information. They’re quite comfortable and active online, and they strongly prefer online modes of engagement over in-person events. The events high-science affinity individuals attend aren’t very different from those with lower affinity levels, but the high-affinity group is a little more likely to have attended museum events and sports events. They’re particularly likely to enjoy online gaming and learning in competitive or gamified structures. And they’re more likely than other groups to seek out experiences that help them network in their job or career (notably, about a third of this group has a career connected to science in some way).

Young adults in the moderate science affinity group, unsurprisingly, show a moderate level of interest in science and science-related topics, and a moderate willingness to participate in various engagement mechanisms. As a group, they have equal proportions male and female, tend to be the oldest group, and are most likely to be married. Compared with their high and low science affinity peers, moderate science affinity young adults would be more interested in checking out a science-related event if their friends and people their own age are going. In addition, they are most likely to encounter science-related topics through stories or topics in the news or to solve a practical problem.

Members of the moderate affinity group are the most likely group to attend live events—collectively, they prefer entertainment events, farmers markets, amusement parks, county fairs or rodeos, and theater. At the same time, they are the heaviest users of social media and are most likely to watch online videos, stream music, watch how-to videos, and listen to podcasts.

Young adults who aren’t starting from a foundation of deep or personal interest in science are, naturally, less inclined to engage with science-related events or online content. But framing those experiences in terms of other things they do care about may nonetheless open pathways to engagement. Young adults with low science affinity are particularly likely to seek information through their existing relationships—i.e., family or friends. When they go online, they’re more likely to do so in order to facilitate connecting “in the real world” with others. They’re less likely than those with high science affinity to use online tools across the board, from search engines to live streaming. They’re also more likely to have children at home, which can sometimes provide a reason for them to engage with science: e.g., in order to help or connect with their children. The kinds of in-person events they attend are broadly similar to those with higher science affinity, but they’re more likely to have attended play groups or classes for children. Young adults with low science affinity are more likely to check out a science-related event if it’s intended for all ages and clearly designed for those who aren’t “science people.”

Demographics by Science Affinity Level


Affinity Level by Gender

Affinity Level by Education

Affinity Level by Race

Affinity Level by Income

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OVERALL INTEREST AND ENGAGEMENT PREFERENCES

Using this science-affinity lens, we next wanted to understand:

  • What information young adults search for, why they do so, and how they obtain it;
  • What modes of engagement young adults currently use, and how these modes are used.

Learning Motivations


Broadly speaking, young adults tend to seek out information and experiences that offer opportunities to both learn and have fun, and they are most likely to seek out information for personal rather than work-related or academic reasons.

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Millennials seek information not just in order to become better informed, but also to do so in ways that are fun, interesting, and/or new

When you look for information on topics, what are your main reasons for doing so?
TAKE AWAYS

High affinity group is twice as likely as low affinity group to look for information that “helps me make specific decisions in my life.”
High affinity group looks for things to do in spare time
Low affinity group is twice as likely as high affinity group to “learn something fun or new that I can share with my kids”.

As might be expected, asking people why they look for information gave strong results related to learning or becoming better-informed. However, since the context for that information-seeking isn’t explicitly professional or educational, we weren’t surprised that fun and entertainment also ranked highly.

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Millennials are most likely to seek information on entertainment activities, and the pursuit of this type of information is common regardless of level of science affinity

In the past twelve (12) months, have you looked for information on any of the following topics?
TAKE AWAYS

High affinity group is much more likely to look up info about:
  • New technology
  • Sports
  • Environmental sustainability
Low affinity group is more likely to look up info about:
  • Religion
  • Fashion
Non-metropolitan young adults are more motivated by social opportunities than those who live in metropolitan areas.

Online searches are the main source of information for young adults, and many also take informal routes, like asking friends or family or trying to figure it out themselves. Relatively few choose formally structured in-person events or look to experts (or expert sources of information). Interestingly, podcasts were not a popular source of information in this survey, despite their current ubiquity.

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Most millennials use online searches to learn about a specific topic, though many ask friends or family or try to figure it out themselves in a hands-on way

When you want to learn more about a specific topic, which of these sources do you turn to first?
TAKE AWAYS

High/moderate affinity groups are more apt to “try to figure it out myself in a hands-on way", if applicable

Modes of Engagement


We asked about both in-person and online mechanisms for learning and engagement. When seeking information of various kinds, a majority of young adults say they prefer online activities over in-person events, although about a third are equally open to both modes. Interestingly, young adults in the high science-affinity category are even more likely to prefer online activities than those with lower science affinity.

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While about a third of millennials enjoy online and in-person learning experiences equally, the majority prefer an online environment

When you want to learn more about a topic, which do you prefer—online or in-person experiences?
TAKE AWAYS

When seeking information of various kinds, a majority of young adults say they prefer online activities over in-person events, although about a third are equally open to both modes.
Interestingly, young adults in the high science-affinity category are even more likely to prefer online activities than those with lower science affinity.

Online Activity
Unsurprisingly, most young adults (like most Americans of all ages) are active seekers of both information and entertainment online: large majorities use social media, watch videos, and stream music, and almost half have played online games in recent months. Young adults gain knowledge online in many forms, with almost two-thirds (62%) watching how-to videos and smaller proportions listening to podcasts, watching talks, and posting comments. Far fewer young adults access formal learning opportunities such as online courses.

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Online searches, social media, and streaming videos and music top the list of millennials’ activities online

Which activities have you done in the past 3 months?
TAKE AWAYS

High and moderate science affinity groups are more likely to watch instructional or how-to videos
The high affinity group is much more likely to have posted to a discussion or comment section online
The low science affinity group is less likely to:
  • Use a search engine
  • Stream music/videos
  • Watch an instructional video
  • Play games
All three science affinity levels use social media at about the same (high) rate

When young adults go online to seek information, they’re largely hoping to learn something and get their questions answered, though some also want to have their assumptions challenged or have a fun, humorous, or relaxing experience. Most showed little interest in socializing through online learning experiences

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When millennials go online for information, about a third are seeking experiences that challenge their assumptions, are fun, make them laugh, and/or feel relaxed and informal

Generally, I want to have an online experience that
TAKE AWAYS

The high science affinity group is more interested in challenging their own assumptions.

In an online context, young adults tend to look for information from many sources, especially those that offer direct learning or instruction from an individual, whether or not that individual has “official” credentials or academic expertise in the relevant area. It’s possible that getting the perspective of a specific individual helps provide a sense of human connection in the online landscape. Consistent with their other responses in this survey, young adults who live in non-metropolitan areas are somewhat more interested in opportunities for social experiences than their urban counterparts.

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When looking for information online, millennials seek out expert input but also rely on content made by “regular” people

When you look for information online, which of the following do you prefer to use?
TAKE AWAYS

High affinity group is much more likely to:
  • Look for content from expert sources
  • Engage in dialogue with others online

Little interest across the board in connecting online and in-person activities (especially for moderate)
7% of low affinity group does NOT look for information online

In-Person Activities
Young adults attend a wide range of in-person events, with entertainment-focused events (concerts, movies, performances) and festivals being the most popular. In general, the low science-affinity group was less likely to attend any of the listed event types, and they were twice as likely to indicate they had attended none of the listed event types. The low affinity group is also more likely to attend an event involving their kids.

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Millennials attend a wide range of in-person experiences, especially live entertainment and festivals

Which of the following types of events have you attended in person over the past twelve months?

When young adults attend in-person events, fun is more important than it is online: many want to both learn and have a good, relaxing time (laughter, excitement, etc.). We’ve seen that having fun is a top motivator for attending events in other disciplines as well, such as cultural activities (Culture Track, 2017). Young adults are not very interested in community-building through in-person events, or in meeting people with different experiences. Instead, they want to participate in something that is fun, and they enjoy learning in informal, low-pressure settings.

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When attending in-person events, about half of millennials want to learn something. But many are also looking for fun.

Generally, I want to have an in-person experience that
TAKE AWAYS

Moderate affinity group is much more interested in an experience that “Helps me learn something”
Low affinity group is much more interested in an experience that “makes me laugh

When they attend in-person events, most young adults tend to prefer receiving information rather than contributing their own thoughts or experiences, though hands-on experiences also rate highly. Perhaps not surprisingly, the high and moderate affinity groups are more interested in hearing from an expert than low affinity group.

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When they do attend events, most millennials want to be in listening or watching mode.

When you attend in-person events, how do you prefer to participate?
TAKE AWAYS

Metro young adults (30%) are more likely than non-metro residents (17%) to be interested in engaging in dialogue with others.
CONNECTIONS TO SCIENCE

We were then interested to see how the general engagement preferences described above mapped onto science and science-related topic-areas. Not surprisingly, the three science-affinity groups showed distinct differences.

Relationship to Science


The survey data suggests that the most natural connections to science for young adults are curiosity about how things work and the sense that scientific advancements make life better. When science does cross their minds, it’s often because they’re thinking about a practical problem or have seen a science-related story in the media. But half of respondents do sometimes seek out scientific topics on their own, out of personal interest. And some are prompted to think about science when helping their kids with science-related homework or projects (and those living in non-metro areas are more likely to connect to science this way).

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Science comes to mind when millennials are thinking about a practical problem or have seen a science-related story in the news.

What usually causes science-related topics to come up in your thoughts or interactions?
TAKE AWAYS

High affinity group is much more likely to have science come up when “Needing to solve a practical problem or get something done”
High affinity group is much more likely to “seek out science related topics, out of personal curiosity or interest” (Note: This kind of interest is inherent in our definition of science affinity.)
Low affinity group is more likely to experience science when “Helping my kids with homework or science-related projects”

Relationship Between Issues and Science


Young adults recognize many topics as being connected to science in some way, though for all the topic areas we asked about, those in the high science-affinity group are more likely to view that topic as connected to science than those with low science affinity.

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Millennials see many topics as connected to science, especially the environment, technology, genetics, and agriculture

What’s your personal view on how connected each topic is to science? Proportion selecting strongly connected to science.

Locally-Relevant Issues


Among local civic and community-related issues, young adults are most concerned about the economy, education, and crime, with housing not far behind.

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The issues that are most important to millennials, at least locally, are things like jobs and the economy, education, and crime

Consider where you currently live. What are the local issues that are most important to you?
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Millennials don’t tend to see the relevance of science to the issues that are most important to them

To what degree do you feel that each issue (facing your community that you believe is important) could be made better through a scientific approach? Proportion selecting a great deal.

Drilling down beyond generalities, we wanted to directly explore whether young adults make a conscious connection between scientific concepts and specific issues of interest and relevance to them.

Taken altogether, our data indicate that young adults don’t see much natural alignment between scientific approaches and the issues they’re most concerned about. In other words, the social and economic issues that respondents care most about aren’t the ones they think are likely to be improved through science. Extrapolating just a bit, we could say that they don’t see science as particularly salient in society.

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Education stands out as a local issue that millennials care about and believe that a scientific approach can be used can help make the issue better

THE FINAL PIECE: CONNECTING ENGAGEMENT TO SCIENCE

Pulling it all together, we wanted to see if the interests and motivations surveyed above would translate into participation in a science-themed activity.

Interest in Science Events


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About a quarter of young adults say they’d be quite interested in attending an in-person event connected to science. But most gave more tepid responses, and almost a quarter aren’t interested at all.

Overall, how likely would you be to attend an in-person event or activity that is connected to a science-related topic?

When deciding whether to attend an in-person science-related activity, young adults are most concerned about the practical relevance of the content and the format of the event rather than the people they’d expect to find there. This may indicate an opportunity to foster engagement with science through topics that feel practical and applicable to everyday life.

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Millennials are drawn to events that sound interesting and fun, and some also look for a connection to practical, everyday relevance to their lives

If you heard about an upcoming science-related event or activity, what would make you most likely to check it out? Please select up to 5 options.
CONCLUSIONS

There are numerous conclusions that can be reached from the presented data, each dependent on the frame through which the information is viewed. Rather than running through all possible scenarios, we offer some general thoughts on science-based programming for young-adult audiences:

On the whole, young adults don’t hold strongly negative associations with science—but neither are their connections with it deeply personal or particularly top-of-mind. While many do recognize the inherent value of science and scientific approaches, they’re less apt to pursue science information or events in their daily lives.

Science affinity is a useful tool for identifying and targeting specific audiences, and should be considered as a factor when developing programming. Keep in mind that affinity for science scales is highly correlated with gender and education-level (and less strongly correlated with income).

Potential participants in events look for indicators of relevance and connections to their interest when deciding how to spend their time outside of work. And for some, science alone won’t be very compelling; an approach which weaves scientific approaches and information in through other topics (which may feel more accessible and interesting) may be more successful in reaching a broad audience.

Focusing programming on issues of concern locally is one potential approach to relevance for young-adult audiences. However, during program development, it will be important to keep in mind that most young adults don’t think that a scientific approach is particularly useful with respect to issues of interest or local importance, so the connection between issues of interest and science may not be immediately apparent to all.

Having fun is a broad goal that needs to be better understood with respect to science programming, but we know it’s an essential element for young adults across a wide variety of contexts. While the topics of engagement programs are important, the structure and design of what happens during a program are also essential to engagement.

Questions


This study, while fairly detailed for a national sample survey, obviously leaves several questions unanswered and topics unaddressed. We list a few that appear to us:

How can someone’s science affinity level be identified—and how do we find and reach moderate science-affinity young adults?
Clearly it is unrealistic to ask someone to respond to our science affinity “checklist” as part of an activity, or to be able to size up the science affinity level of an individual (or group) at first glance. Instead, we encourage organizations to form close collaborations with local partners and stakeholders so that they might find mutually beneficial target audiences in which the moderate science-affinity predominates.


Are there other ways to analyze and segment the data that we’ve gathered in this study?
Short answer: yes. We used the science affinity frame as it was consistent with our intended outcomes and usage of the survey data. However, for organizations looking to engage with groups having specific demographics, the report does offer a wealth of data that is ripe for additional analysis and interpretation. We are willing to share that data upon request.

Summary


In summary, we feel that the information contained within this report helps address a major gap in the existing research on young adults. By digging into the young adult audience more deeply than previous studies, especially with respect to their relationship with science, we hope that this report will improve public engagement with science efforts being made by organizations across the country (and the world). While more research is still needed, this investigation represents a crucial first step towards a more data-driven, audience-centric approach to doing public engagement with and for young adults—an approach that is necessary and appropriate for the 21st century.

References


1. Science and Engineering Indicators 2018. 2018, Alexandria, VA: National Science Board.

2. Culture Track 2017. 2017, New York, NY: LaPlaca Cohen. Available at: http://2017study.culturetrack.com/