We live in interesting times for those seeking to inspire children and youth to take up science, technology engineering, and mathematics (STEM). STEM activities in and out of school are fun, interactive and educational. They also are crucial for ensuring our future wealth and health as well as for boosting national competitiveness in the global race for STEM talent. Indeed, as Andrew Hacker puts it in his 2015 STEM frenzy article in The New York Review of Books: ‘The fervor over STEM goes beyond promoting a quartet of academic subjects. Rather, it’s about the kind of nation and people we are to be’.

We have put together an edited collection for BJHS Themes that sheds light on the relationship between what we call ‘worlds of science for children and young persons’ and their cultural contexts. As historians of science, we find the numerous ways in which science has been communicated, performed and appropriated outside its own ‘comfort zone’ not only fascinating, but also increasingly important to understanding how science shapes culture and is being shaped by cultural factors.

The new BJHS Themes issue (vol. 3) on Worlds of Science for Children and Young People, 1830-1991 examines a wide range of historical activities all aiming to engage children and young persons in STEM topics (before the acronym was invented). The authors share a commitment with many other historians of science to portray science as integral part of culture. What some may have thought would be peripheral to science and the history of science, namely how to mobilize scientific knowledge for children, have had wide-ranging consequences for how scientists and others have thought about science, the proper place of science in society, and ‘the kind of nation and people we are to be’.

Children are more than just another audience for science popularisers. Because children are crucial agents in terms of bringing about the kind of future we want, since the Enlightenment they have emerged as a significant ‘other’ for science. Children, or more generally childhood, share a long and entangled history with science. More importantly, they have become constitutive for the ways in which we think about science itself. When people considered how to make science intelligible (and fun) to children, they have had to re-think their ideas about science and the role of science in shaping the future.

The articles in the BJHS Themes issue testify to the historical diversity in how adults have communicated science to children and young persons. Most articles, however, emphasize the tendency to use science for instructive, educative and even nation-building purposes. STEM activity and STEM thinking, for all the frenzy currently in the air, are not merely contemporary, nor are a passing phenomenon, but rather pertain to the very heart of the kind of science and the kind of culture we have.

BJHS Themes is a fully open access journal for the history of science community.  The journal is a collaborative venture between the British Society for the History of Science and Cambridge University Press.

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