Equity Pathways in Informal STEM Learning

Equity Pathways in Informal STEM Learning

January 19th, 2016

This article was co-written by Emily Dawson, University College London, Louise Archer, King’s College London, Angela Calabrese Barton, Michigan State University, Lynn Dierking, Oregon State University, and Amy Seakins, King’s College London.

Informal learning experiences about science, technology, engineering and mathematics (or STEM) can provide youth with rich, innovative, and transformational ways to engage with and learn about the world around them. However, not all STEM experiences are as equitable as they could potentially be. For instance, there are field-wide problems about who can access informal STEM resources as well as whose voices, interests, and goals are included.Equity Pathways in Informal STEM Learning is a Science Learning+ Phase 1 project, part of an international initiative established through partnerships between the Wellcome Trust and Economic and Social Research Council in the UK and the US-based National Science Foundation, in collaboration with the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation and the Noyce Foundation.

Through the Equity Pathways project we explored equity issues for youth from underserved, non-dominant backgrounds aged between 11 and 14 in informal STEM learning. We focused on three different sectors of informal STEM learning, 1) designed spaces (including zoos, aquaria, museums and science centres), 2) community based resources (such as community clubs, school science clubs or youth clubs) and 3) every-day science experiences (like science on TV). Our goal was to develop a better theoretical understanding of the issues around equity and access to informal STEM resources, and what this meant for youth pathways into and through STEM. We also wanted to collect and share some initial data about how equity was understood and practiced across the three different types of informal STEM learning settings, as well as to build capacity to engage the field with equity issues, in both practice and research.

The project

Over the course of a year, informal STEM learning practice and research partners came together to discuss current equity practices, challenges, and opportunities, as well as what inclusive practice might involve. The project was designed to maximize collaboration between practitioners and researchers. As a result the core project team included practice partners from the UK – Zoological Society London (also known as London Zoo), At Bristol Science Centre, the Open Media Lab, and STEMNET -, and from the US – the American Museum of Natural History, the Community Science Workshop Network, and KQED Public Media for Northern California. Practice partners worked alongside researchers from King’s College London, University College London, Michigan State University, and Oregon State University to develop and implement the project.

We began the project by carrying out a literature review and administering a survey in the US and the UK to explore the attitudes and experiences of informal STEM practitioners and researchers towards equity and inclusion in their work (a big thank you to anyone who completed the survey by following the link that CAISE circulated!). After some initial data analysis and discussion, we then organized seven exploratory discussion workshops (four in the UK, three in the US) that were attended by a total of 111 participants.

The workshops were themed by the three sectors. There was a community workshop and an every-day science workshop in both countries. In the UK the designed spaces workshop was split into two sub-sectors; one workshop with practitioners and researchers from zoos and aquaria, and another with museum and science centre staff and researchers. We also held a final two-day workshop in the UK with a mixture of practice and research participants from both countries to examine the issues that emerged from the first seven workshops. During the last part of the project we used the data we had collected through the surveys and workshops to co-develop a series of practice-research briefs on the key themes that arose (equity and pathways), an infographic and a research and practice agenda to guide our thoughts going forward. Access all project documents.

What we learned about equity pathways and informal STEM learning

We found that practitioners and researchers across the three settings and two countries shared a sense that equity concerns represented an urgent and significant challenge for informal STEM learning and engagement. The workshops highlighted a clear need to develop more equitable practices since examples of equitable informal STEM learning ‘best practices’ were few and far between. Although equity was understood theoretically in different ways, and people used different language (for example, widening participation, inclusion, social justice, equity, equality and diversity), participants were united in a common belief that equity needed to be placed at the heart of informal STEM learning practice and research.

In the workshops participants discussed the risks and potential benefits of shifting the central role of science in informal STEM opportunities, and spoke of placing disadvantaged youth at the center of practice. Participants talked about how different pathways into and through science could support youth. A clear focus in all our workshops was about putting youth practices, identities, and interests at the core of inclusive and equitable informal STEM experiences. In other words, workshop participants clearly felt it was important that informal STEM resources support youth in developing a sense of agency in their lives through STEM as well as opening up new pathways to STEM careers, lifelong pursuits or hobbies. Equitable informal STEM experiences should help youth realize their goals inside and outside of science.

Key insights and next steps

The main insight that we gained from the Equity Pathways project is that there is still much to be accomplished to understand and develop equitable, inclusive informal STEM practices. As such, one take-home message from this project is the need for more practice and research collaborations that create spaces to experiment (both successfully and unsuccessfully!) with equity and access in informal STEM settings. We are very grateful to all our practice and research partners, not to mention survey and workshop participants, for giving their time and energy so generously to this project. At the moment we are continuing our discussions, and we are in the process of developing a second phase project that will build on this one in which we aim to further explore how equitable and connected informal STEM learning experiences can support pathways into, through, and around science for disadvantaged youth.