By Dr. Sandra Toro
IMLS Program Officer

We are pleased to announce four STEMeX awards– the first of their kind for the agency – which fund research on informal educational approaches that make use of the knowledge and skills of community Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) experts. These long anticipated awards generated a tremendous response from the field, and all of us at IMLS are anxious to see the results of this important work.

A key goal of STEMeX is that funded projects will help create a foundation for reaching children and families from diverse economic, social, and cultural backgrounds, with different levels of knowledge about STEM.

The four STEMeX awards that have been made will support design-based research projects that will develop and explore models for inquiry-based STEM programs delivered by scientists, engineers, and related technical practitioners (STEM experts) to children ages 6-10 and their families. Researchers from the High Desert Museum (MG-77-16-0120,) George Mason University (MG-77-16-0125,) Loyola University of Chicago (MG-77-16-0118,) and Pennsylvania State University (MG-77-16-0137) will investigate the role of expert oral narratives as part of object-based science inquiry in both museums and libraries.

The four project teams, using complementary theoretical approaches and research methods, will investigate a variety of questions in a diverse array of informal learning contexts. Below is a brief overview of their projects.

Researchers from the High Desert Museum, Oregon State University Cascades and the Deschutes Public Library, will answer questions including:

  • How might the experts’ use of storytelling impact rural families' talk during STEM activities, understanding of the nature of science, engagement, and attitudes?

The team will work with a museum curator, a biologist, a wildlife ecology expert, and university professors along with up to twenty rural families and four library and museum professionals. They will use a sociocultural theoretical approach and collect data from observations, questionnaires, and interviews to discover the most effective aspects of programming and then share their findings.

Researchers from Loyola University Chicago and Northwestern University will collaborate with the Chicago Children’s Museum, and the Evanston Public Library, among others, to answer questions including:

  • In what ways do and can experts incorporate the use of objects and oral narratives into inquiry-based STEM activities for families in libraries and museums?

Engaging engineering experts from the community, including students from Northwestern’s McCormick School of Engineering in the National Society of Black Engineers, the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers, and others, the project team will study the experts and 96 families at Chicago Children’s Museum and Evanston Public Library. Using a theoretical approach based on the social nature of learning, particularly the role of narratives in meaning-making and memory, the researchers will gather videotaped observations and learning assessments  to inform understanding about the process of engaging experts and how families learn STEM.

George Mason University researchers will collaborate with experts identified through and affiliated with the Hispanic Heritage Foundation and the biomedical assistive device company, AnthroTronix. The team will study STEM experts as they interact with culturally and socioeconomically diverse families with elementary school-aged children to answer questions including:

  • How do design features of workshops impact parent-child conversations and interest in, knowledge of, and comfort with STEM?

The researchers will use linguistic, discourse, and narrative analysis as well as activity theory and artifact analysis to understand the process of envisioning and creating along with other qualitative methods to understand changes associated with participation in workshops. The analyses will assess how varied prompts and design features impact participants’ interest in, knowledge of, and comfort with STEM inquiry. From the results, the team will develop theories to refine and test a framework for library and museum-based STEM programming.

Researchers from Pennsylvania State University, will develop the STEM Pillars program with a team that includes Discovery Space of Central Pennsylvania, Shaver’s Creek Environmental Center, Schlow Library, Bellefonte Library, Centre Hall Library, and Phillipsburg Library. The team will work with life sciences, earth sciences, and engineering experts from three Penn State University research groups, two local businesses, and the Huntingdon County Conservation District and families from Pennsylvania’s Appalachian region. The research team will examine questions including:

  • How can intergenerational library and museum experiences use STEM expert narratives effectively to make the science present in the community more visible and relevant?

Using two design conjectures around learners’ attention and use of questions along with a variety of research methods, the team will work to create a personally-relevant STEM learning model for libraries and museums.

We look forward to watching these projects unfold and sharing each team’s findings with the museum and library fields.