Blog for June 2022: Sparking and Sustaining STEM interest through Informal Learning Experiences

Posted by: Scott Pattison on June 13, 2022

In the informal STEM education field, interest has always been considered a central outcome and primary mechanism for supporting learning (National Research Council, 2009). Out-of-school experiences are known for their ability to connect with and build on children’s and adults’ prior interests in order to lay the foundation for long-term engagement with STEM inside and outside of school. Educators and program designers have the flexibility to tailor these experiences to the needs and interests of learners and support participants’ agency to adapt and personalize their learning. Sometimes these experiences spark new STEM-related interests. But more often, informal STEM learning experiences connect with the prior interests of adults and children and contribute to an ongoing process of interest and identity development over time.


In 2006, Suzanne Hidi and Ann K. Renninger outlined a framework for describing interest that has served as a foundation for the vast majority of research in this area since then (Hidi & Renninger, 2006; Renninger & Hidi, 2011). According to their four-phase model of interest development, interest is defined as “the psychological state of engaging or the predisposition to reengage with particular classes of objects, events, or ideas over time” (Hidi & Renninger, 2006, p. 112). In other words, the concept includes both the way we focus our attention and effort in a particular moment as well as the choices we make to seek out experiences, activities, and topics as our interests develop over time. Hidi and Renninger conceptualized interest development as a staged process, beginning with two phases of situational interest connected with our state of emotions, attention, and persistence in a particular moment and context. If supported, the model posits that these phases can lead to “individual interest,” which refers to the “predisposition to reengage with particular classes of content over time” (p. 115). The model describes how these phases are linked to an array of other cognitive and affective variables, including value, knowledge, and self-efficacy.


This model has been extremely influential in informal STEM education and beyond in defining how we think about, study, and support interest for children and adults. Even educators and scholars who do not directly connect their work to this research, or use the term “interest,” often implicitly define the experiences of participants in terms of engagement within a particular moment and how these individual experiences build towards long-term patterns of interest that support other desired outcomes, such as knowledge and identify development or career choice.


Nearly two decades since the model was proposed, it is now an important time to reflect on how our understanding of STEM interest has evolved and how our approaches to supporting and studying interest have changed. Does research continue to support this linear, staged conceptualization of interest development, or is there evidence that the process of interest is more complex and organic? Is it productive to focus on the ways that informal STEM learning experiences “spark” interest, or should we focus instead on how existing interests are activated and evolve over time? Does a psychological conceptualization of interest adequately account for the complex social and cultural dynamics that shape STEM learning? And how does the education field’s sharpened focus on equity change the way we think about and support STEM interests?


In this webinar, we will explore these questions with two experts in the STEM education field: Natalie Davis and Flávio Azevedo. Dr. Davis’s research explores the relationship between teaching and learning, cultural ecologies, and the sociopolitical development of children from non-dominant communities, with emphasis on the educational experiences and “freedom dreams” of urban-based Black children. Dr. Azevedo’s work focuses on interest-driven learning across timescales and settings of STEM practice, in- and out-of-schools, as well as the socio-cultural and political contexts of such practices, as means to broadening participation in STEM and to intervening on mechanisms that (re)produce educational and social inequities. Inspired by a playlist of STEM for All 2022 Video Showcase videos and the Center for Advancement of Informal Science Education’s (CAISE) interview series with scholars studying interest across a range of settings, we will reflect on our current ideas about STEM interest in the field of informal STEM learning and consider directions for future efforts.


We look forward to seeing you there!




Hidi, S., & Renninger, K. A. (2006). The four-phase model of interest development. Educational Psychologist, 41(2), 111–127.


National Research Council. (2009). Learning science in informal environments: People, places, and pursuits. National Academies Press.


Renninger, K. A., & Hidi, S. (2011). Revisiting the conceptualization, measurement, and generation of interest. Educational Psychologist, 46(3), 168–184.


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