Science Learning+: STEM Teens: Examining the role of youth educators as learners and teachers in informal STEM learning sites

December 1st, 2017 - February 29th, 2024 | PROJECT

One way to encourage youth to pursue training in the STEM fields and enter the STEM workforce is to foster interest and engagement in STEM during adolescence. Informal STEM Learning Sites (ISLS) provide opportunities for building interest and engagement in the STEM fields through a multitude of avenues, including the programming that they provide for youth, particularly teens. Frequently, ISLS provide opportunities to participate in volunteer programs, internships or work, which allow teens both to learn relevant STEM knowledge as well as to share that knowledge with others through opportunities to serve as youth educators. While youth educator programs provide rich contexts for teens to engage as both learners and teachers in these informal STEM environments, research to date has not yet identified the relationship between serving as youth educators and STEM engagement. Thus, the goal of this project is to document the impact of youth educators on visitor learning in ISLS and to identify best practices for implementing youth educator programs. The project studies STEM interests and engagement in the youth participants and the visitors that they interact with at six different ISLS in the US and UK. This project is funded through Science Learning+, which is an international partnership between the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Wellcome Trust with the UK Economic and Social Research Council. The goal of this joint funding effort is to make transformational steps toward improving the knowledge base and practices of informal STEM experiences. Within NSF, Science Learning+ is part of the Advancing Informal STEM Learning (AISL) program that seeks to enhance learning in informal environments and to broaden access to and engagement in STEM learning experiences.

This project examines youth educator experiences related to STEM identity, educational aspirations, and motivation. The project also identifies outcomes that the youth educators have on visitors to ISLS in terms of knowledge, interest, and engagement in STEM. The specific aims are: 1) Outcomes for Teens - To measure the longitudinal impact of participation in an extended youth educator experience in an ISLS; 2) Outcomes for Visitors - To compare visitor engagement with and learning from exhibits in ISLS when they interact with a youth educator, relative to outcomes of interacting with an adult educator or no educator; and 3) Outcomes Across Demographics and STEM Sites - To examine differences in visitor engagement based on participant characteristics such as socio-economic status (SES), age, gender, and ethnicity and to compare outcomes of youth educator experiences across different types of ISLS. This research, which draws on expectancy value theory and social cognitive theory, will follow youth participants longitudinally over the course of 5 years and use latent variable analyses to understand the impact on the youth educators as well as the visitors with whom they interact. Importantly, the results of this research will be used to develop best practices for implementing youth educator programs in ISLS and the results will be disseminated to both academic and practice-based communities.

This project has clear and measurable broader impacts in a variety of ways. First, the project provides guidance to improve programming for youth in ISLS, including both the sites involved directly in the research and to the larger community of ISLS through evaluation, development, and dissemination of best practices. Additionally, this project provides rigorous, research-based evidence to identify and describe the outcomes of youth educator programs. This study directly benefits the participants of the research, both the visiting public and the youth educators, through opportunities to engage with science. The findings speak to issues of access and inclusivity in ISLS, providing insight into how to design environments that are welcoming and accessible for diverse groups of learners. Finally, this project provides evidence for best practices for ISLS in developing programs for youth that will lead to interest in and pursuit of STEM careers by members of underrepresented groups.

Project Website(s)

(no project website provided)

Project Products

Toolkit for STEM youth programming in informal science learning sites

Team Members

Adam Hartstone-Rose, Principal Investigator, North Carolina State University
Ashlee Lewis, Co-Principal Investigator, University of South Carolina


Funding Source: NSF
Funding Program: Advancing Informal STEM Learning (AISL)
Award Number: 1831593
Funding Amount: $1,162,101.00


Access and Inclusion: Ethnic | Racial | Low Socioeconomic Status | Women and Girls
Audience: Educators | Teachers | General Public | Learning Researchers | Middle School Children (11-13) | Museum | ISE Professionals | Youth | Teen (up to 17)
Discipline: General STEM
Resource Type: Project Descriptions
Environment Type: Exhibitions | Museum and Science Center Exhibits | Museum and Science Center Programs | Public Programs