Broadening Participation by Middle-School Students in STEM via Integrating Hands-on Experiences in Science Learning

November 1st, 2018 - October 31st, 2020 | PROJECT

As part of its overall strategy to enhance learning in informal environments, the Advancing Informal STEM Learning (AISL) program seeks to advance new approaches to, and evidence-based understanding of, the design and development of STEM learning in informal environments. This includes providing multiple pathways for broadening access to and engagement in STEM learning experiences, advancing innovative research on and assessment of STEM learning in informal environments, and developing understandings of deeper learning by participants. This exploratory Pilot study project brings together a diverse set of partners that include the Watertown Children's Theatre (WCT) which is west of Boston, and, from Boston College a team of science educators, learning science researchers, and positive youth development experts. The goal is to design and develop a project for middle school-aged youth. The pilot project, which integrates hands-on science learning experiences, experiments, and field trips with the student-led production of short plays, will engage youth in expressing their beliefs, passions, and their own identities about STEM by examining how the intersection of skills and practices used in both domains (science and theatre) can enable them to learn about science concepts, principles and methods as well as to develop science-focused identities. Middle-school youth will be engaged in a three-week summer program where they will be led by science teachers, playwrights, and high school students to conduct hands-on investigations in science in conjunction with developing original, ten-minute plays around a specific scientific theme relevant to their life experience, for example, the potential impact on their lives of heavy metals in water and poor air quality. After a science theme is chosen, the principal investigators will identify the big ideas that are important for youth to understand and be able to explain. Upon identification of the key science ideas, youth will then engage in pertinent science activities, visits to local sites, reading current news articles and then in identifying the local impacts and how the underlying science relates to those local impacts. The youth will perform their ten-minute plays at the end of the summer program. Following this showcase event, they will engage in additional science learning experiences and also revise their productions throughout the academic year in preparation for a youth science festival, where their creations will be performed by professional adult actors as a part of the Cambridge Science Festival taking place in the spring. The broader impact of the work focuses on broadening participation in STEM, specifically, the engagement of youth from under-represented populations in the sciences, such as African-Americans, Latinxs, and women with partner Boston Public Schools. The Pilot study will investigate the student learning and organizational dimensions of the model being developed.

The Boston College researchers will study youth's sense of purpose and identity toward science, particularly how youth's identity discrepancy changes through participation in the project. The work places youth voice at the center of the creation of STEM-based theatre plays. The theoretical foundation of the work is grounded in part in the concept of "path to purpose." The major research questions are: How do youth perceptions (interest, science anxiety, identity) toward science shift as they participate in the project? What is the residual impact on parents (family members) and youth on their discussions about science, and how does participation in the project impact those discussions? Research methods include surveys, interviews and observations. The external evaluation study will focus on understanding project implementation and progress toward meeting the project goals, in particular, how well the initiative works to establish a model for the informal STEM learning field that the team and others can apply beyond the Pilot study.

This award reflects NSF's statutory mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation's intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.

Project Website(s)

(no project website provided)

Team Members

Meghan Hill, Principal Investigator, The Dorothy and Charles Mosesian Center for the Arts


Funding Source: NSF
Funding Program: AISL
Award Number: 1811166
Funding Amount: $299,780.00


Access and Inclusion: Black | African American Communities | Ethnic | Racial | Hispanic | Latinx Communities | Women and Girls
Audience: Educators | Teachers | Learning Researchers | Middle School Children (11-13) | Museum | ISE Professionals | Youth | Teen (up to 17)
Discipline: General STEM | Nature of science
Resource Type: Project Descriptions
Environment Type: Public Programs | Summer and Extended Camps | Theater Programs

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This material is supported by National Science Foundation award DRL-2229061, with previous support under DRL-1612739, DRL-1842633, DRL-1212803, and DRL-0638981. Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations contained within are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of NSF.

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