Sharpening Our Focus on Equity: Reflections from the Storybook STEM Project

Scott fam photo1

January 15th, 2021

This article was co-authored by Scott Pattison, TERC​ and Gina Svarovsky, University of Notre Dame.


The Storybook STEM project began from a relatively simple premise. With support from the National Science Foundation (#1902536) and TERC, our goal was to synthesize knowledge about how children’s books can support STEM engagement and learning for preschool-age children and their families, especially in out-of-school contexts. A large body of literature has established the importance of children’s books for early literacy and other aspects of child development (Canfield et al., 2020; Common Sense Media, 2013; Dowdall et al., 2020; Mol & Bus, 2011). And many projects inside and outside of the classroom have already incorporated books as part of STEM curriculum and programs (see below). In our own work through the Head Start on Engineering project (NSF #1515628), we have seen the power of children’s books for creating shared learning experience with parents and children, providing compelling contexts for engineering design challenges, and more (Pattison et al., 2019). Our hope was that by bringing stakeholders together and synthesizing past research and project findings, we could identify shared lessons learned and provide recommendations for future work.


Example Informal STEM Education Projects that Incorporate Children’s Books

Although many of these goals were realized, two years of discussion and reflection also tapped into something much deeper—the persistent and pervasive need for the informal STEM education (ISE) field to reflect on and re-examine the basic assumptions of how we do our work and the impact these assumptions have on equity in STEM education (Bevan et al., 2018; Calabrese Barton & Tan, 2020; Garibay & Teasdale, 2019; Philip & Azevedo, 2017). We began with the naïve assumption that children’s books are a common and fairly uncontroversial approach to engaging families with young children, including those from traditionally marginalized communities. However, like all aspects of education, these books are cultural artifacts that are inextricably linked to larger systems of privilege and oppression (Ladson-Billings & Tate, 1995; Melzi et al., 2013; Rogoff, 2003). Rather than provide a traditional summary of our project, therefore, we decided to share the process that helped unearth some of these problematic assumptions and reflect on how the findings, we believe, are ultimately relevant beyond storybooks and early childhood education.

Gathering Perspectives

The Storybook STEM project was funded by NSF as a small conference grant, with additional support provided by TERC to host the meeting and fund travel for participants. At the outset, we conducted a series of information gathering efforts to better understand the work being done in this area and to connect with researchers and educators across the country. This included literature reviews, a national survey disseminated to early childhood and family educators and researchers through a variety of outlets and professional organizations, and an asynchronous online discussion forum with survey participants and other individuals recommended through the survey responses. Ultimately, we collected feedback from 231 researchers, educators, and other professionals through the survey and engaged 156 individuals in the online forum. Both activities focused on documenting the ways that storybooks are currently being used to support STEM learning for families with young children, especially outside of school, the research base supporting this work, recommended resources, and outstanding questions that researchers and educators are grappling with.

These information gathering activities culminated in an in-person convening at TERC in Cambridge, MA, in December 2019. (Little did we know at the time that this would be one of the last professional, in-person events that we would participate in before the global health pandemic!) A group of 21 early childhood reading, family learning, and ISE experts were invited to spend one and a half days reviewing the survey and online forum themes, sharing their own perspectives, and mapping out recommendations and questions for future work. Due in part to our initial efforts to cast a broad net through the survey and online forum, we were able to identify individuals representing a range of STEM content domains, professional roles, and learning contexts—from academics conducting clinical research to leaders in the library community looking at family STEM education efforts across the country. 

Convening Photo2

Centering Equity

The convening discussions were framed by a series of guiding questions and cross-cutting themes that we had developed based on the literature and feedback from the survey and online forum. The guiding questions related to educational goals, learning contexts, design of books and programs, the roles of professionals and educators, and perspectives on narrative and story. The cross-cutting themes focused on equity, family, and early literacy.

Two important dynamics during the convening quickly reshaped this framework and brought equity to a more central place in the group’s discussions. First, participants were keenly aware of the growing importance of equity in the education and STEM learning fields and brought with them an eagerness to address these issues more directly. Many of the participants are recognized equity experts or advocates in their respective professional communities. Second, the group was deeply inspired by three brief talks by members of the convening: Laura Huerta Migus, Maureen Callanan, and Gigliana Melzi.

The three talks were originally designed to speak to the cross-cutting themes in our guiding framework (equity, family, and early literacy). However, all three connected directly to equity in different ways and highlighted this as an underlying theme for the convening. Association of Children’s Museums CEO Laura Huerta Migus laid the groundwork by providing an overview of equity within the ISE field and describing a framework for thinking about different levels of equity work: from a more superficial focus on accessibility and representation to deeper commitments to highlighting and disrupting the fundamental systems of injustice that perpetuate inequities within STEM education (e.g., Huerta Migus, 2011). University of Santa Cruz Professor of Psychology Maureen Callanan continued this theme by sharing her expertise in family learning and highlighting important considerations when working with families from different cultures, such as acknowledging the unique expertise of parents and the multiple approaches to parenting and storytelling across communities (e.g., Solis & Callanan, 2016). Finally, New York University Steinhardt Professor of Applied Psychology Gigliana Melzi brought an early literacy perspective and stressed the tension between supporting early childhood development through book reading while at the same time reflecting how this approach may or may not align with the culturally situated storytelling and early literacy practices of different families (e.g., Melzi et al., 2019).

These talks were reported by participants as a highlight of the convening and profoundly shaped the subsequent discussions. Perhaps it’s not surprising, therefore, that the final recommendations that emerged from the convening center equity and challenge researchers and educators to rethink many of the assumptions underlying traditional approaches to integrating storybooks and STEM learning (see below). For example, participants questioned the basic assumption that these efforts should privilege storybooks and instead recommended thinking about story and narrative more broadly, including the variety of ways these elements are incorporated into different family practices (e.g., song, oral storytelling traditions, and everyday conversations).


Recommendations from the Storybook STEM convening:

  1. Rethink how stories are developed, including how families and scholars of color are represented and involved in the process of creating and selecting stories.
  2. Rethink what we mean by stories by connecting with both written and oral story traditions and creating space for families to tell their own stories.
  3. Rethink our relationships with families by engaging them as key stakeholders throughout the development, implementation, and research process.
  4. Rethink how we measure success, including broadening our notion of STEM learning, connecting STEM and literacy, and attending to the goals of parents and children.
  5. Rethink the connection between research and practice by better sharing what we already know and involving educators and other practitioners as partners in the research process.

(For more information, see the project website:


Reflecting on the process

Reflecting on the outcomes of this experience, we recognize that these recommendations could be applied to nearly any effort or context in the ISE field. This does not make the findings less relevant for the specific topic of storybooks and family STEM learning. But as we noted at the outset, we do believe it speaks to a broader dilemma with the field: The critical need to go beyond our current models of access and assimilation and think more deeply about the underlying assumptions and systems of inequity that we often unintentionally perpetuate through our work.

From the very outset of project development and funding, we are taught to choose an audience, identify the problems facing this community (often focused on deficits and articulated without meaningful audience input), and design programs that “broaden access” for these groups. This process leaves unquestioned the basic approaches to our work that are key to addressing issues of equity within STEM. Even the simple proposition of choosing a children’s book and integrating it with a STEM program, as the convening recommendations highlight, is fraught. Underlying those choices are a series of assumptions about what families are interested in, what goals and measures of success should be, how community members should be involved, and what we even mean by stories.

For us, this project has been an important process of grappling with these more fundamental issues. And for other efforts in ISE, we hope it is a reminder to continue to think critically about how we go about our work. Although we led this project as investigators, we tried to approach each step with humility as co-learners. And we are grateful to the many individuals, and especially the educators and scholars of color, that were willing to share their ideas and expertise. The recommendations that emerged from the convening are not new or groundbreaking. Instead, they represent an affirmation and an amplification of the core tenants of authentic equity work that many colleagues have been developing for decades, within and beyond the education field (e.g., GonzĂĄlez et al., 2005; Ladson-Billings & Tate, 1995; Paris, 2012; Tolbert et al., 2018; Varelas et al., 2015; Yosso, 2005).

At least one critical voice was noticeably absent from this project: the families themselves. Unfortunately, we realized this omission at the end of the project, especially as rethinking the relationship with families and other community members emerged as a central theme in the recommendations. This is a fundamental limitation to the work. And we believe this is a misstep shared across many ISE projects. Again, we are taught to review literature and consult experts at the outset and only after the project is developed and funded to engage families. This pattern is changing, but it is a habit that will be hard to unlearn. We hope the results of this convening support other efforts to motivate a fundamental change in our approach to ISE in order to truly address the systemic inequities in our society.



We are grateful to the many educators, researchers, and professionals that participated in and contributed to this project. This work was made possible through the generous support of TERC and the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 1902536. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the funders.



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