Blog for January: Broadening Participation in STEM through Community Engagement

Posted by: Brian Drayton on November 20, 2019

Broadening Participation in STEM Through Community Engagement
This month's theme, "Broadening Participation in STEM Through Community Engagement," presents voices from several projects which take different approaches to addressing this challenge by engaging people in many walks of life (including school-aged children) with science, math, technology, and engineering.  

Darling-Hammond et al. (2018) report on the research consensus that every child's learning ecosystem should include "supportive environmental conditions that foster strong relationships and community. These include positive sustained relationships that foster attachment and emotional connections; physical, emotional, and identity safety; and a sense of belonging and purpose."   Uri Bronfenbrenner (1979) examined the link between the learning child and the learning community.  He argued that the child's development is affected not only by direct relationships that he or she has with teachers, peers, neighbors, and parents, but also by interactions between these groups.  Such interactions build and maintain community norms, including attitudes about STEM.  Community engagement can encourage youth to see STEM subjects as valuable for personal interest and enjoyment, social betterment, and possibly new career paths. 

The first and second videos in our playlist, "Community Perspectives: Transforming schools to benefit all," and “Community perspectives on noise pollution,” provide an inviting introduction to our theme.  Their approach, worked out in 15 underserved communities, seeks to broaden — and empower — participation in STEM learning, and in the use of STEM for social betterment, by framing STEM as a human endeavor which all can participate in, and have a stake in. One project, for example, focuses on noise pollution and the identification of places that can serve as quiet refuges. 
The other entries in our playlist exemplify three different strategies for engaging kids and other people with STEM in ways that both power learning,  and empower action. 

Strategy 1: Authentic learning while working on community issues.
Three of the featured videos present projects that engage students from elementary in work on authentic problems within  their community. In each case, mentoring is an important element of the educational experience.   In "Bits to bites: Decoding injustice" students learn coding, as they analyze, describe, and propose solutions to the problem of food injustice — unequal access to nourishing food in lower-income communities.  In a second video, "NSF-CREST P.R. Center for Environmental Nanotechnology," we see how the lab of Prof. Liz Díaz-Vázquez involves undergraduates in cutting-edge research on the potential uses of nano-materials for monitoring or eliminating environmental contaminants; the undergraduates also serve as mentors for middle-school students in the neighborhood. We learn from the project's website that Díaz-Vázquez's team hopes next to initiate "citizen-based research" to incorporate citizen input to the research program.  Finally, in a classic citizen science project, Jason Aloicio's project, "Project TRUE: Teens researching urban ecology," gets teens involved in studies of the urban wilds of New York City, in a project that collects field data on the organisms and  natural features of the landscape.  The project also empowers the teens to act as advocates and ambassadors on behalf of the parks and reserves that are so important a contributor to the city's well-being. 

Strategy 2. Intergenerational learning
Three of the featured videos show different approaches to making learning a community experience — thus making the learning institution (school or informal science center) a place where community is enacted, with STEM as one of the languages or tools used to express relationship and articulate meanings.  "TechTales" teaches Scratch programming, in the context of families from nondominant communities, who tell stories and share their knowledge in many media  — often augmented with or supported by the code — including graphical arts, textiles, narrative, robotics.  
In the "Spanish Family Code Nights" project, children and their parents learn to code together,   bringing computer science and related engineering skills to children and their families whose communities have had little access to them before. "Chispa: Children Investigating Science with Parents and Afterschool” brings kids and parents together to do hands-on science in after-school or other informal contexts. The  goal is to increase the engagement of Hispanic children and their families with science and local science resources.

In all three of these projects, the intergenerational nature of the activities both builds the capacity of the community, and also enables adults to support their children's learning in these new arenas. 

Strategy 3. Learning about yourself as part of your community. 
Both “Digital East St. Louis” and “Finding Your Roots: The Seedlings?” work directly with identity and place.  In the first, kids from East St. Louis learn more about themselves by eliciting stories from people in the city about the city's life, history, and heritage. In hearing and retelling these stories, the students enrich their sense of place, and thereby their own identities; and the richness of the stories, and the students' personal investment provide motivation for learning about new technologies for describing place and narrative.  “Finding Your Roots: The Seedlings?” conveys core science content — human genetics — but because it's the students' own genetic history, the "here and now" of place and heredity are situated in histories, journeys, events, and many cultures.  As the project's abstract says, the goal was to "inspire teachers and students to think about relatedness in broad and inclusive ways, to challenge us to think about the ways in which we are connected, to encourage students to create durable records of oral and written family history, and to share the pieces of who we are with each other." 

Our panel includes presenters from several of these diverse projects.  Join them as they discuss the theme of the month, and reflect on questions such as:

• How did this project originate? Was the impetus to meet a community need? To meet a student need? To broaden participation? How successful was it at broadening participation?

• What are the most important kinds of impact to measure for your project?  What types of evidence have you collected from the community and from students?

• Did your project include mentors?  If so, what was their role? What supports and training were the mentors offered?

• What are some of the challenges of engaging community members and students? What did you have to do to help scientists, students, community members communicate effectively?

• What next?  What are your thoughts on growing, scaling, and sustaining your project?  What challenges will you face? What strategies will you employ?


View playlist related to this theme »