Collaborative Research: Establishing a Network and Framework for Informal STEM Education for Youth in Native Communities

April 15th, 2022 - March 31st, 2027 | PROJECT

Centering Native Traditional Knowledge within informal STEM education programs is critical for learning for Native youth. In co-created, place-based learning experiences for Native youth, interweaving cultural traditions, arts, language, and community partnerships is vital for authentic, meaningful learning. Standardized STEM curricula and Western-based pedagogies within the mainstream and formal education systems do not reflect the nature of Native STEM knowledge, nor do they make deep connections to it. The absence of this knowledge base can reinforce a deficit-based STEM identity, which can directly impact Native youths’ participation and engagement in STEM. Reframing STEM education for Native youth to prioritize the vitality of community and sustainability requires active consideration of what counts as science learning and who serves as holders and conduits of STEM knowledge. As highly regarded holders of traditional and western STEM knowledge, Native educators and cultural practitioners are critical for facilitating Native youths’ curiosity and engagement with STEM. This Innovations in Development project is Native-led and centers Native knowledge, voice, and contributions in STEM through a culturally based, dual-learning approach that emphasizes traditional and western STEM knowledge. Through this lens, a network of over a dozen tribal nations across 20 U.S. states will be established to support and facilitate the learning of Traditional and Western STEM knowledge in a culturally sustaining manner. The network will build on existing programs and develop a set of unique, interconnected, and synchronized placed-based informal STEM programs for Native youth reflecting the distinctive cultural aspects of Native American and Alaska Native Tribes. The network will also involve a Natives-In-STEM Role Models innovation, in which Native STEM professionals will provide inspiration to Native youth through conversations about their journeys in STEM within cultural contexts. In addition, the network will cultivate a professional network of STEM educators, practitioners, and tribal leaders. Network efforts and the formative evaluation will culminate in the development and dissemination of a community-based, co-created Framework for Informal STEM Education with Native Communities.

Together with Elders and other contributors of each community, local leads within the STEM for Youth in Native Communities (SYNC) Network team will identify and guide the STEM content topics, as well as co-create and implement the program within their sovereign lands with their youth. The content, practitioners, and programming in each community will be distinct, but the community-based, dual learning contextual framework will be consistent. Each community includes several partner organizations poised to contribute to the programming efforts, including tribal government departments, tribal and public K-12 schools, tribal colleges, museums and cultural centers, non-profits, local non-tribal government support agencies, colleges and universities, and various grassroots organizations. Programmatic designs will vary and may include field excursions, summer and after school STEM experiences, and workshops. In addition, the Natives-In-STEM innovation will be implemented across the programs, providing youth with access to Native STEM professionals and career pathways across the country. To understand the impacts of SYNC’s efforts, an external evaluator will explore a broad range of questions through formative and summative evaluations. The evaluation questions seek to explore: (a) the extent to which the culturally based, dual learning methods implemented in SYNC informal STEM programs affect Native youths’ self-efficacy in STEM and (b) how the components of SYNC’s overall theoretical context and network (e.g., partnerships, community contributors such as Elders, STEM practitioners and professionals) impact community attitudes and behaviors regarding youth STEM learning. Data and knowledge gained from these programs will inform the primary deliverable, a Framework for Native Informal STEM Education, which aims to support the informal STEM education community as it expands and deepens its service to Native youth and communities. Future enhanced professional development opportunities for teachers and educators to learn more about the findings and practices highlighted in the Framework are envisioned to maximize its strategic impact. 

Project Website(s)

(no project website provided)

Team Members

Juan Chavez, Principal Investigator, Blue Marble Space
Daniella Scalice, Co-Principal Investigator
Wendy Todd, Principal Investigator, University of Minnesota Duluth


Funding Source: NSF
Funding Program: Advancing Informal STEM Learning (AISL), NSF INCLUDES
Award Number: 2115718
Funding Amount: $2,575,950.00

Funding Source: NSF
Funding Program: Advancing Informal STEM Learning (AISL)
Award Number: 2115781
Funding Amount: $376,804.00


Access and Inclusion: Ethnic | Racial | Indigenous and Tribal Communities
Audience: Administration | Leadership | Policymakers | Educators | Teachers | Elementary School Children (6-10) | General Public | Middle School Children (11-13) | Museum | ISE Professionals | Scientists | Seniors | Youth | Teen (up to 17)
Discipline: Education and learning science | General STEM
Resource Type: Project Descriptions
Environment Type: Community Outreach Programs | Professional Development | Conferences | Networks | Public Programs | Resource Centers and Networks