ISE Contributions to the STEM Workforce

October 8th, 2014

The Diving Deeper, Looking Forward session topics at the 2014 AISL PI Meeting emerged from a pre-meeting survey of AISL-funded Principal Investigators; discussions with PIs and others who have participated in CAISE convenings over the past two years; and input from CAISE staff, co-PIs, and NSF Program Officers. These sessions were intended to stimulate discussions about cross-sector topics and issues that can continue beyond the meeting and generate new ideas for future projects and collaborations. The following blog post is a summary of questions, issues and ideas expressed by the participants in this session.

As described in the 2013 National Science Foundation (NSF) Education & Human Resources Directorate Core Research Areas solicitation, the NSF “invests heavily in efforts to prepare a diverse, highly skilled STEM workforce, including STEM teachers, that can lead and innovate in a complex global economy.” As a field that promotes lifelong learning, informal science education offers many opportunities to contribute to the development of the STEM workforce. In this session at the 2014 AISL PI Meeting, three projects representing a variety of ways to promote workforce development shared their program designs, and facilitated a discussion on the challenges and strengths of informal learning projects in contributing to workforce development.

Examples of Informal STEM Projects that Promote Workforce Development

Techbridge: The Techbridge program based in Oakland, CA is led by CEO and Executive Director (and AISL PI) Linda Kekelis. Techbridge, which began with a small grant from what was then the NSF Informal Science Education (ISE) program, originally focused on girls in grades 5-12 who had not expressed an interest in STEM topics. Fifteen years later, the program now offers a range of engaging activities for girls who are at any point on the continuum of interest: learning to code, design challenges, and so forth, all centered around STEM content.

Techbridge found that girls did not often connect these kinds of activities—which they considered hobbies—to career prospects. So, the program began to embed role play, icebreakers and reflection related to STEM careers to help facilitate that connection. An essential component of Techbridge is providing role models. For many girls, interest in STEM may be discouraged (or at least not actively encouraged) by adults in their environment. Role models help to mitigate those messages. A challenge that Techbridge has encountered is measuring the long-term impact of these programs, which are designed to have influence on girls’ interests and activities beyond the time of their participation. The program is currently exploring how to embed this tracking early in the program.

Informal Learning Environments in Teacher Education for STEM (ILETES): The ILETES project is a CAREER award led by PI Jennifer Adams, an associate professor at CUNY Brooklyn College. This project explores identity formation for new and in-training teachers, which has an effect on their beliefs and practices, behaviors, and pedagogical knowledge. Dr. Adams theorizes that when teachers form identities and attachment to informal STEM learning resources and experiences, they seek out those kinds of experiences for their students. This can be an effective way to introduce students to out-of-school resources, which can in turn have an impact on student learning outcomes.

To facilitate the work, the project has partnerships with local ISE institutions such as the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) and Parks system. The study observes how teachers talk about themselves and their students, and examines the nature of the teacher-student interactions. The goal of the project is not to change the content of classroom teaching, but rather to boost motivation and engagement for teachers—the theory of action being that it will do the same for their students. The project has built in a plan to study the teachers longitudinally.

The challenges in the ILETES project include: equity and access, fidelity of enactment, constraints within the school structure or curriculum, and bridging institutional cultures.

The Art of Science Learning (AoSL): This project, led by PI Harvey Seifter, looks at workforce development through the lens of arts-based learning, and the connection of the STEM workforce development ecosystem to the innovation ecosystem. The original grant supported by the NSF ISE program funded three conferences that explored the key skills attributes and behaviors that arts-based learning can drive. Those conferences contributed to the current grant, Integrating Informal STEM and Arts-Based Learning to Foster Innovation, which is developing and testing an arts-based innovation process curriculum in three “incubator” sites (which were profiled last summer in a Spotlight in CAISE’s Perspectives blog).

Harvey Seifter discusses The AoSL project.

AoSL defines innovation as identifying a problem, and finding solutions through a collaborative learning community. Using the incubator model, a wide variety of community stakeholders—including educators (formal and informal), artists, business leaders, researchers, policymakers, and students—are guided through an arts-based learning process to address problems that are important to their communities. The underlying theory of action of the program is that by integrating the arts into innovation training and applying them to STEM-related community issues, learners will develop more robust creative thinking skills while also “bringing things to market” in the form of innovative solutions.

Challenges and Successes of Informal STEM Learning and Workforce Development

The three projects highlighted in this session are just a few examples of informal STEM education contributions to the STEM workforce. There are many more opportunities in this arena, and session participants shared some challenges, successes and recommendations from their own work:

  • Scaling up successful work. Ensure that progress at local sites are well-documented, adequately capturing internal knowledge and essential components, and work through an intentional process to identify where there can (or needs to be) innovation and change while still maintaining fidelity to the original project goals.
  • Look for expertise in unconventional areas. The arts-based training of AoSL is just one example of a discipline that promotes innovation. Design- and engineering-processes also have powerful models of learning and innovation embedded within their practices. Look outside of your own discipline or comfort zone to find expertise.
  • The importance of longitudinal studies. While documenting impact is an ongoing issue for informal STEM settings where learner engagement may not be prolonged or easily measured, getting data on the long-term outcomes for participants in projects and programs that address workforce development is particularly important and challenging. This can partly be addressed by embedding assessments early in the program. Participants suggested using unconventional methods to track younger learners, like keeping in touch via Facebook or being attentive to graduation dates in order to reestablish contact.
  • What are considered “good” outcomes in workforce development? Clearly, not every learner who has a “good” experience with science learning is going to go on to have a STEM career. As informal STEM professionals, we should challenge ourselves to re-examine what success means for our project, as well as reflect on the range of what we define as a STEM-based profession. Participating in STEM education programs may help to improve 21st century skills, provide access to social capital, improve self-efficacy, and promote a variety of other non-cognitive skills.

Related Resources

These resources and projects were shared or mentioned in the session.


Selected Resources from the Informal Commons



Special thanks to Margaret Glass for documenting this session.