Examining the Efficacy of a Co-Designed Culturally Sustaining STEM Learning Ecosystems Model for Youth, Their Families, and Informal Educators in Rural Communities

September 1st, 2021 - August 31st, 2025 | PROJECT

Although approximately one-quarter of U.S. students reside in rural communities, rural youth are fifty percent less likely to receive and engage in out-of-school STEM experiences than their urban counterparts. In addition, there has been significantly more investment in understanding and improving informal experiences in urban settings than in rural settings. As a result, there is less known about the characteristics of learning ecosystems and programs that support STEM learning for youth in informal contexts within rural communities. This Research in Service to Practice project aims to address this challenge by exploring the feasibility of a culturally relevant and sustaining STEM program designed specifically for rural youth and their families. Parents and caregivers play a critical role in fostering youths’ interests and persistence in STEM through their own engagement and by connecting them to STEM opportunities and STEM-related fields and career pathways. Through a partnership between the High Desert Museum in Oregon, the Institute for Learning Innovation, Maine Mathematics and Science Alliance, JKS Consulting, and three informal science education institutions, a year-long series of STEM-based workshops and experiences for youth and their families will be co-designed by members of the rural community, informal STEM educators, and STEM professionals and implemented within the rural communities of the participating informal science education institutions—Caddo Mounds State Historic Site Weeping Mary (TX), High Desert Museum (OR), Oregon Coast Aquarium, and The Wild Center (NY). Each series will reflect the cultural knowledge, connections, and resources specific to each rural community. In addition, the informal STEM educators and STEM professionals will receive training on facilitating the culturally sustaining workshops and experiences. Researchers at the Institution for Learning Innovation and the Maine Mathematics and Science Alliance together with the evaluator at JKS Consulting will employ a collaborative design-based research approach to identify and study the STEM learning practices and supports that occur within the program to promote youths’ interests and persistence in STEM. The findings will offer evidence-based insights to the field on how to better engage, reflect, and provide opportunities for diverse rural communities. Ultimately, this research has the potential to advance the current understanding thereby, strengthening rural STEM learning ecosystems and broadening STEM participation among youth in rural communities.

Over a four-year project duration, a collaborative design-based research approach will be employed to address the following research questions: (1) How does culturally sustaining informal STEM programming for families in rural communities contribute to increases in youth STEM persistence? (1a) How might this vary in relation to family and community factors? (2) How does culturally sustaining informal family STEM programming increase community connectivity between STEM-related resources and institutions across informal and formal learning contexts in rural communities leading to a more robust and inclusive STEM learning ecosystem? (2a) To what extent do participating families, informal STEM educators, STEM professionals, and community partners each play a role in increasing this connectivity? The research sample will include 300 families with youth ages 8-11, informal science educators, and STEM professionals across all four sites. Surveys, interviews and observations will be the primary data sources. Analysis of Variance and simple descriptive statistical analysis will be used to analyze the quantitative data. The qualitative data will be analyzed using thematic coding through NVivo. In addition, to complement the research data, JKS Consulting will conduct the formative and summative evaluations of the project to hone effective practices for training informal science learning practitioners in developing and implementing place-based, inquiry-based family learning in rural communities and effective and sustainable practices for engaging rural families in place-based STEM. Findings from the research will be made available and widely distributed in publications, conference presentations, and a multi-part Research to Practice Toolkit designed for parents and caregivers, informal science educators, STEM professionals, and the informal education field at large.

This Research in Service to Practice project is funded by the Advancing Informal STEM Learning (AISL) program.

Project Website(s)

(no project website provided)

Team Members

Christina Cid, Principal Investigator, The High Desert Museum
Scott Byrd, Co-Principal Investigator
Deborah Siegel, Co-Principal Investigator


Funding Source: NSF
Funding Program: Advancing Informal STEM Learning (AISL)
Award Number: 2115488
Funding Amount: $583,321.00


Access and Inclusion: Rural
Audience: Elementary School Children (6-10) | Families | Learning Researchers | Middle School Children (11-13) | Museum | ISE Professionals
Discipline: General STEM
Resource Type: Project Descriptions | Projects
Environment Type: Aquarium and Zoo Programs | Museum and Science Center Programs | Public 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 InformalScience.org are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of NSF.

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