STEM learning

Teens from marginalized communities often contend with strong cultural messages and under-resourced schools that discourage them from pursuing STEM learning. How can programs that embed science, computational and design skills inside other activities—like participating in science events at outdoor music festivals—build student interest, develop their skills and shift their perceptions of what science is and can be for them?

This spring, the University of Washington’s Research + Practice Collaboratory, in partnership with Science Gallery Dublin, received a joint $2 million grant from the National Science Foundation and Wellcome Trust Foundation through its new Science Learning+ program. The partnership between researchers and educators located in the United States, United Kingdom and Ireland will document ways that out-of-school programs serving economically and racially marginalized youth can build young people’s interests and skills in science, digital design, coding and production. The project consists of six studies, involving making/tinkering, media production, museum learning, digital arts and pop-up/street science. It also includes a longitudinal study of student learning outcomes. 

STEM-related skills, like computational thinking or data visualization, are increasingly useful in our everyday and working lives. The majority of the top 30 fastest-growing jobs require STEM skills, yet many young people have been discouraged from envisioning and pursuing a future that involves STEM.

STEM Inside will investigate how students may be drawn to afterschool and summer programs that involve social justice, the arts or digital design—and in which STEM concepts, skills and tools are embedded. STEM Inside will study how these programs can be designed to appeal to and deeply engage youth from economically and racially marginalized communities. A longitudinal study will track, over time, if and how these programs contribute to student learning trajectories as they transition out of high school and into college or the workforce.

"A critical element of the STEM Inside program is exploring what happens when young people get an opportunity to step outside traditional discipline boundaries of art, design, science and technology and play at the boundaries of disciplines exploring big themes and challenges of the future,” said Principal Investigator Lynn Scarff, director of Science Gallery Dublin.

“We’re hoping the study can broaden our understanding of how and where young people become interested and capable in STEM,” said project Principal Investigator Bronwyn Bevan, a senior research scientist at the University of Washington College of Education. “Young people are passionate about our most pressing social and environmental issues. They’re also passionate about their phones and social media accounts. Programs that tap into these passions can help young people come to see how they can build on their passions, like their digital design and technical skills, and develop their STEM questions and understanding to create their own futures. We see this as critical for expanding equity in education.”

Another central feature of the programs being studied is an “authentic audience” for the work of the students—whether they are producing radio segments that air on NPR or designing exhibits that will be installed for three months at a science museum.

“Part of our working hypothesis is that the consequential nature of the programs is an important factor that drives young people to dig deeper in their work. The deeper they go, the more they can become interested and the more they will learn,” said Bevan.

International Partners

STEM Inside brings together a diverse array of nine partners from the United States, the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom. Out-of-school learning partners are Boys & Girls Clubs of Indianapolis, Guerilla Science (New York and London), Science Gallery Dublin, Wac Arts (London) and Youth Radio (Oakland). Research partners are Indiana University, London School of Economics and the University of Washington. Together, these partners are collaborating deeply at many levels, forming a research-practice partnership.

“Research-practice collaborations are a critical approach to making our work better,” said Scarff. “They enable a culture of reflection to be embedded within the organisation, which moves us from a box-ticking evaluation strategy to a process that is more thoughtful, holistic and considerate of our audience. It challenges us to provide better programming and a better audience experience."

The Research + Practice Collaboratory has been developing and studying research-practice partnerships for the past five years.

“The partnership approach represents a fundamental shift from traditional research-to-practice thinking towards collaborative research with practice approaches,” said Co-PI Philip Bell, Shauna C. Larson Chair in Learning Sciences & Human Development at the University of Washington College of Education. “The focus shifts to leveraging academic knowledge in support of practice and building human capacity and resources in service of educational improvement at ever-expanding levels of scale.” 

Research Agenda

STEM Inside will explore the intersections between ways of knowing in art, science and digital design to understand how interdisciplinary approaches and consequential learning can make STEM feel more meaningful to young people, and how participating in out-of-school experiences can influence young people’s longer-term choices.

The project also aims to create practical tools to support informal educators in the work of broadening STEM participation. In addition to previously mentioned research, STEM Inside will host professional development programs at international conferences and create formative assessment tools that educators can use to monitor student learning.

This project builds on a Wellcome Trust SL+ Phase 1 award (105948/Z/14/Z). Read more about the launch of the Creativity and Equity in STEM Learning project.

STEM Inside is funded through the Science Learning+ program, an international partnership between the NSF and the Wellcome Trust with the UK Economic and Social Research Council.


Dustin Wunderlich, Director for Marketing and Communications

Abby Rhinehart, Communications Spcialist, UW Institute for Science + Math Education