June 2022: Sparking and Sustaining STEM interest through Informal Learning Experiences: Reflections on Where We’ve Been and Where We’re Headed as a Field

Sparking and sustaining interest has long been identified as a central goal of informal STEM learning experiences. As the field has continued to evolve, we are learning more about what it means to foster STEM interests and developing new tools and frameworks for describing and studying these interests and their impact. Join us for this live discussion panel as a group of experts reflect on our ideas about STEM interest in the field of informal STEM learning and consider directions for future education and research efforts.View Synthesis >>

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Expert Panel

June Theme of the Month Panel: Sparking and Sustaining STEM Interest Through Informal Learning Experiences


Recorded June 28, 2022 at 3:00 PM EDT

Description: Sparking and sustaining interest has long been identified as a central goal of informal STEM learning experiences. As the field has continued to evolve, we are learning more about what it means to foster STEM interests and developing new tools and frameworks for describing and studying these interests and their impact. Join us for this live discussion panel as a group of experts reflect on our ideas about STEM interest in the field of informal STEM learning and consider directions for future education and research efforts.

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Read the discussion related to this theme.
Public Discussion
  • Icon for: Jared Wilkins

    Jared Wilkins

    June 28, 2022 | 08:22 p.m.

    Hello, Does someone have copies of the two Renninger & Hidi papers that are referenced in the blog that could be sent through to me? My email address is jared.wilkins@questacon.edu.au. Thank you.

  • Icon for: Jamie Bell

    Jamie Bell

    June 29, 2022 | 10:39 a.m.

    Hello Jared, and thank you for joining us yesterday. Ann Renninger's commissioned paper that informed the 2009 consensus report Learning Science in Informal Environments is here. The 2006 Hidi & Renninger paper on the 4 phase model of interest development can be requested of the authors via ResearchGate here. Their 2011 paper on Revisiting the Conceptualization, Measurement, and Generation of Interest is available for free access via EBSCO if you are logged in to the InformalScience.org website. It is free to register here. Their most recent paper, To Level the Playing Field, Develop Interest, is here

  • Icon for: Scott Pattison

    Scott Pattison

    June 29, 2022 | 06:25 p.m.

    Thanks for sharing those links, Jamie. And thanks to everyone who attended or watched the presentation. We welcome your thoughts, reflections, and questions. I look forward to the ongoing discussion.



  • Icon for: Jamie Bell

    Jamie Bell

    July 5, 2022 | 09:30 a.m.

    As the webinar discussion surfaced, there are many different perspectives on what STEM interest is, what it intersects with, and how to support it. In 2018, CAISE interviewed researchers and practitioners whose work is focused on interest and related constructs video excerpts from those interviews as well as full transcripts are available here

  • Icon for: Tony Perry

    Tony Perry

    July 5, 2022 | 10:17 a.m.

    Thanks for sharing these fantastic projects and the expert perspectives in the panels. 

    I am very excited about the developments coming out of this work situated, largely, in out-of-school contexts. A few related questions I often wonder about:

    What might the formal education system learn from this work? How could schools/schooling be reconfigured to take on the responsibility to develop and nuture student STEM interest exploration and development over time?

    However, I also worry this may not be the right approach! For example, one takeway from the panelists is that there seems to be something important for youth about doing having space and time for this work outside of the institution of school. The impact may not translate if we bring these practices into the formal classroom.

    I would welcome any thoughts or responses!


  • Icon for: Scott Pattison

    Scott Pattison

    July 5, 2022 | 02:34 p.m.

    Hi Tony,

    Thanks so much for the questions and for sharing your reflections from the discussion. I agree that there are plenty of opportunities and challenges related to connecting these ideas to the classroom. Natalie certainly talked about this in terms of youth identity and how that process can be supported (or undermined) inside and outside of school.

    In my own work with preschool-age children and their families, I’m interested in promoting a two-way dialogue between schools and home. Traditionally, that dynamic has been more about one-way transmission of information from school to families. More recently, we have seen some acknowledgement of the funds of knowledge that children bring with them into the classroom and the ways that teachers can build on this. But in order to support ongoing interest development, I would like to see greater recognition of the rich learning that goes on at home and intentional strategies for connecting this learning with the classroom and vis-a-versa. This, I believe, would require a power shift, with teachers and parents seeing each other as partners in children’s education and the creation of communication strategies and dialogue spaces for families and teachers to share knowledge with each other.

    I’m not sure if this is directly relevant to your context, but it’s one thought that occurred to me as I was considering your question. Hopefully others from the group will chime in as well.



  • Icon for: Abdelfattah Jabrane

    Abdelfattah Jabrane

    July 6, 2022 | 08:36 a.m.

    Hi dear colleagues!

    I totally agree with this, and I want to add that between child and school there is a bridge, it's the informal knowledge, when parents answer to their children questions, they have to be carefull and consider it as a window to the whole universe even if it's sometimes complicated, we have to argue every comment with simplicity, honestly and don't hide our incapacity to answer and keep patient until child being convinced. I think it may be a scaffold to reach a future problem solver person.


    Physics teacher and mentor teacher

    Best regards

  • Icon for: Scott Pattison

    Scott Pattison

    July 6, 2022 | 07:10 p.m.

    Thank you for this reflection, Abdelfattah! I appreciate your aspirational approach to supporting children's learning--thinking about their future possibilities as we adults try to scaffold and support. This feels like it touches on the essence of interest development. We recognize their emerging passions and try to support in a way that extends their their unique interest development pathways.


  • Icon for: Abdelfattah Jabrane

    Abdelfattah Jabrane

    July 7, 2022 | 08:53 a.m.

    Thank you Scott for sharing your expertise and I'm glad to share my thoughts that could enrich the debate.


Related Resources

Author(s): Bell, J., Besley, J., Cannady, M., Crowley, K., Grack Nelson, A., Philips, T., Riedinger, K., & Storksdieck, M
Publication: Center for Advancement of Informal Science Education (Jan 2019)

But what do we mean by STEM “interest”? In 2018, the Evaluation and Measurement Task Force asked a sample of 10 STEM education researchers, science communication scholars, social psychologists, learning scientists, and informal science educators to share their thinking and work on this complex and rich topic.

Author(s): Pattison, S. A., & Dierking, L. D.
Publication: Science Education (Nov 2018)

We conducted a qualitative study with seven low-income mothers and their four-year-old daughters from Head Start to (a) develop a descriptive understanding of science-related interest development for preschool children from traditionally underserved communities and (b) identify differences across families that might explain the variation in children’s interests.

Author(s): Pattison, S. A., Ramos Montañez, S., Santiago, A., Svarovsky, G. N., Douglass, A., Núñez, V., Allen, J., & Wagner, C.
Publication: NARST Annual International Conference (Mar 2022)

Interest is a critical motivating factor shaping how children engage with STEM inside and outside of school and across their lives. In this paper, we introduce the concept of interest catalyst that emerged from longitudinal research with preschool-age children and their families as critical to the process through which each family developed unique interest pathways through their experience with a family-based informal engineering education program.

Author(s): Pattison, S. A., Svarovsky, G., Ramos Montañez, S., Gontan, I., Weiss, S., Núñez, V., Corrie, P., Smith, C., & Benne, M.
Publication: Journal of Pre-College Engineering Education Research (J-PEER) (May 2020)

We conducted in-depth case study research with 15 English- and Spanish-speaking families and their preschool-age children participating in a family-based engineering education program through a local Head Start organization. The study documented how both children and parents developed engineering-related interests through the program and explored the characteristics of and shifts in these interest systems.

Author(s): Shaby, N., Staus, N., Dierking, L. D., & Falk, J. H.
Publication: Science Education (May 2021)

This study examined the dynamics of the STEM interest and participation pathways of three youth in an under-resourced, urban community. These three cases offer insights into how youth with a strong interest in a STEM topic or activity perceived the resources that were available to them in a STEM learning ecosystem and highlight the affordances and constraints each faced in pursuit of their interests.

Author(s): Staus, N. L., Falk, J. H., Penuel, W., Dierking, L., Wyld, J., & Bailey, D.
Publication: Eurasia Journal of Mathematics, Science and Technology Education (Apr 2020)

We examined how “STEM Interested” youth differed from disinterested youth and how interest changed over time from age 11/12 to 12/13. We surveyed youth to measure interest in four components of STEM, used cluster analysis to categorize youth based on STEM interest, and examined how interest profiles and pathways differed for several explanatory factors (e.g., parental support, gender).

Author(s): Takeuchi, L., Vaala, S., & Ahn, J.
Publication: The Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop

This report presents findings from separate surveys of 1,550 U.S. parents and 600 pre-K–8 teachers on whether, to what extent, and how U.S. children ages 3–12 are linking their learning experiences across home, school, and community settings. The inquiry paid particular attention to the ways in which caregivers and teachers support and, in some cases, impede the development of young children’s interests and the learning associated with pursuing these interests.

Author(s): Pattison, S., Ramos Montañez, S.
Publication: Springer, Cham (Jun 2022)

In this chapter, we describe findings from a retrospective interview study with parents one to two years after they participated in Head Start on Engineering (HSE) initiative. HSE has been developing a family-based program to engage preschool-age children and their families from low-income communities in the engineering design process and simultaneously study how these experiences support long-term family interests related to engineering.

Author(s): Davis, N. R., Marchand, A. D., Moore, S. S., Greene, D., & Colby, A.
Publication: Race Ethnicity and Education (Aug 2021)

This study foregrounds Black youth perspectives to offer additional insight into the role of supplementary programming. Drawing from 15 semi-structured, pre-post interviews with Black youth participating in a six-week summer CDF Freedom Schools program, we analyzed core distinctions drawn between youths’ experiences in the program and in their traditional schools.

Author(s): Davis, N. R., Vossoughi, S., Smith, J. F.
Publication: Learning, Culture and Social Interaction (Feb 2020)

This paper argues for an amplification of the everyday intellectual and political gestures of children as valuable indices and movers of learning. We identify and focus on microacts of self-determination, defined here as, “as contestations and moves to elsewhere that shift activity and dictate future status”. In particular, we consider if and how such microacts that could be cast as idiosyncratic build and shape new possibilities for learning and social interaction, what we refer to here as learning from below.

Author(s): Flávio S. Azevedo
Publication: Science Education (Oct 2017)

I advance theoretically and empirically grounded arguments for broadening how we frame and understand situational interests. ...I conjecture that situational interests are best understood as phenomena that combine both discontinuous and continuous dimensions of experience. To argue this point, I use three in-depth videotaped case studies of the triggering and (when available) retriggering of situational interests in STEM-based practices and show that the continuity + discontinuity lens provides a fine-grained and more accountable description of the phenomenon, its triggering process, and its eventual uptake and development (or not).

Author(s): Azevedo, Flávio S.
Publication: Journal of the Learning Sciences (Nov 2012)

This article seeks to sharpen current conceptualizations of interests and engaged participation, and to derive lessons for the design of interest-driven science learning environments (formal and informal). The empirical basis of the research is a set of ethnographic records of two communities of amateur astronomers, as well as the details of astronomers’ instantiations of the hobby. Hobbies are paradigmatic examples of interest-driven practices and thus they offer an excellent window into truly interest-related phenomena and processes.

Author(s): Flávio S. Azevedo
Publication: Cognition and Instruction (Apr 2011)

Based on a three-year-long ethnography of the hobby of model rocketry, I present a practice-centered theory of interest relationships—that is, the pattern of long-term, self-motivated engagement in open-ended practices that has been theorized under the concept of individual interests. In contrast to extant theories of individual interests, in which persistent engagement is pegged to a topic-specific relationship (e.g., a model rocketeer has an interest in the topic of rocketry, broadly conceived), I propose that persistence in a practice of interest is best understood in terms of what I call lines of practice.