USC researchers land $1.3 million grant to enhance STEM education

Researchers from the University of South Carolina’s School of Medicine and College of Education recently received a $1.3 million National Science Foundation grant to study the best ways to encourage students to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) through participation at informal learning sites. The grant also included a £800,000 award from the Wellcome Trust for collaborative research in the United Kingdom led by Goldsmiths University of London. To conduct the research, the USC professors are teaming up with some popular Midlands educational facilities including EdVenture and Riverbanks Zoo and Gardens, as well as the Virginia Aquarium and Marine Science Center and three sites in England.

USC School of Medicine professor Adam Hartstone-Rose and College of Education professors Kelly Lynn Mulvey and Matt Irvin, as well as partners at each site, will spend the next five years examining the youth engagement programs at “informal STEM learning sites” — museums, zoos and aquariums — in the U.S. and in the United Kingdom. These sites allow middle- and high-school students to volunteer, intern or work, which gives the teens opportunities not only to learn about STEM, but also to share that knowledge with younger children. 

“We know that youth educator programs provide rich contexts for teens to engage as both learners and teachers but so far, there is no research that demonstrates that those who serve as youth educators later go on to study STEM majors in college or pursue STEM careers,” says Mulvey. “Therefore one goal of this project is to document that impact over time and to identify the best ways to improve these informal STEM youth programs.”

The study will also look at the impact these “youth educators” have on the many visitors they interact with during their work.

“A teen volunteer, if trained properly, could spark an interest in STEM in a young child who they work with at a summer camp or during a park visit. So even if the teen doesn’t pursue a STEM field, that young visitor might one day — that’s a powerful impact,” says Irvin.

This project is funded through Science Learning+, an international partnership between the National Science Foundation and the Wellcome Trust with additional support from the UK’s Economic and Social Research Council. The study involves a large team, integrating researchers, practitioners and program evaluators across the US and UK and will evaluate the effects of these teen programs across six different sites.

The international team of researchers will also examine how characteristics such as socio-economic status, race, age and gender influence a participant’s educational experience while at the learning sites.

“The findings will bring to light any issues of accessibility and inclusivity that might exist at the learning sites,” says Hartstone-Rose. “Of course, the goal is to help the zoo, museum and aquarium, as well as learning sites across the world, to design environments that are welcoming and accessible for diverse groups of learners.”

The researchers will follow the teen participants for five years, gathering information through interviews, surveys, videotaped interactions and other methods along the way, to determine if the educational programs that are currently in place are successfully encouraging STEM engagement.

“The results we find will be used to enhance learning in these informal environments and to broaden access to STEM learning experiences for everyone, especially underrepresented groups,” Mulvey says. 

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