Dr. Maïko Le Lay will present on the work described below at CLS2022, in the session “Connected Approaches to STEAM Learning” (Wednesday 7/27, 9:00am).
In our ethnographic research conducted in informal STEM learning programs (ISL) located in predominantly Latinx-serving areas, we found that addressing social, emotional, and cultural elements is crucial to supporting underrepresented minorities. What really seemed to help the youth enrolled in ISL programs was the social, emotional, and cultural support they received in these places.
The multiyear project (2018-2022), All Together Now: The Role of Mentorship in Persistence in Informal STEM Projects, was supported by the NSF and led by Dr. Mizuko Ito. Dr. Ito and her research team examined ways informal STEM learning programs (ISL) can broaden STEM participation by building STEM-relevant social capital and cultural connections for underrepresented youth. Prior studies showed that informal and out-of-school learning supports the development of STEM interests and persistence. These programs are often interest-driven and embedded in the culture of a community, which helps nurture relationships that go beyond a specific class or program. In order to identify equity-oriented features of ISL programs, we drew on the connected learning research framework that centers this type of learning.
We visited three ISL programs in Southern California, serving predominantly Latinx youth, which included six physical sites that had varied approaches and organizational contexts to their teaching methods:
- TGR Learning Lab (TGR) is located in Anaheim and welcomes over 200 low-income, underrepresented students every quarter. The program offers a hands-on, no textbook approach featuring unique STEM courses like forensic science and marine science. The lab was founded by Tiger Woods, which means it also includes golf lessons.
- ListoAmerica, located in Tustin, is part of the worldwide Clubhouse Network and caters to about 50 Latinx youth per year. ListoAmerica takes a culturally tailored approach, with a bilingual, bicultural staff strongly connected to their local Latinx community. Members can come by on a drop-in basis to pursue projects they are interested in, get help with homework, or just hang out with friends and mentors.
- Mathematics, Engineering, Sciences Achievement (MESA) is a national program that offers project-based STEM learning experiences to middle and high school students with the goal of increasing enrollment in STEM college majors. Participants in California’s MESA programs are over 90% Latinx. We conducted research in 1 high school and 3 middle schools in Anaheim that offered MESA programs as electives during school hours. Every MESA teacher has the freedom to craft their own syllabus based on the main MESA curriculum.
We conducted three waves of interviews with over 150 participants between Spring 2019 and Spring 2020. The majority of our interviewees (both educators and youth) self-identified as Latinx. There was an approximate even split between male and female students.
Below are features of these programs that support equity in STEM learning:
Sponsoring Youth Interests and Identities
Connected learning programs meet the youth where they are and support their interests in a culturally responsive and well-resourced environment. When learning grows out of personal interests and identities, young people can build connections between otherwise unfamiliar disciplines with their home cultures and practices. This is particularly important for youth who do not see their culture or identity reflected in the dominant culture of STEM.
Daniel, a 13 year old male from TGR, had this to say: “In marine science, we learned about how plastic is endangering a lot of species in the ocean, and I told that to one of the people that lives in our neighborhood. […] Then, a few months after I told her that, she made like a little group, and they started picking up trash and everything.” Projects like this help connect STEM knowledge to larger societal and community issues, which helps students.
ListoAmerica hosts Día De Los Muertos (Latinx cultural event) and Cerebro (STEM community outreach) events, open to students, parents, and community members to build trust with the students and to encourage long term participation, retention, and success.
Shared Projects and Purpose
In connected learning environments, participants work together on purposeful and creative activities, where learning is a by-product of that activity rather than the sole focus. Informal programs embrace open-ended, collaborative, project-based learning without requiring assessments of individual learning outcomes.
Mr. Gus, a ListoAmerica educator, thinks that what draws students to ListoAmerica is the “free-flowing” workflow of the program, as opposed to “old traditional school” systems: “I think that’s what attracts them. At first, kind of defensive, like if we’re going to tell them what to do. I think they associate it with school. I think that’s what they gravitate towards, that it’s not a school. It’s a hangout. It’s a clubhouse.”
Participants describe these authentic, project-based STEM environments as more motivating and psychologically safe because they are making genuine contributions to a shared, purposive project. Frank, a 16 year old male from TGR, feels like the creative learning environment at TGR has been positively impacting his STEM learning: “In here, they let you expand your mind, use your imagination, and really try to express how you’re feeling, and express what you’re trying to build. […] it’s a place of designing and learning.”
Do’Jae, a 17 year old female, said that through MESA, she learned that she “can do things and actually try, like and fail but if [she] puts in the effort, [she] will be good.” She added that in MESA, “I’m just myself. I’m able to learn. I’m able to push myself to challenges and be able to accomplish them.” She used to think that STEM wasn’t really for her, but MESA boosted Do’Jae’s confidence in approaching more complicated subject material and provided her with a safe environment where she could try without fear of backlash.
Holistic and Supportive Relationships
Youth from underrepresented groups are less likely to have family, friends, and mentors involved in STEM related programs. Having holistic and supportive social relationships that go beyond the boundaries of STEM subjects and courses – what we describe as “affinity-based mentorship,” – shows significant improvement in engagement (Barron et al., 2014; Larson et al., 2013).
When youth were asked to name educators who supported their STEM learning, they named BIPOC mentors most often. Melissa, an 18 year old female from ListoAmerica, felt that the Latinx people at her ISL program contributed to “really hav[ing] a connection…I really do feel like it’s a family here.” Mr. Gus and Ms. Julie, another ListoAmerica educator, are uniquely positioned to connect with their students on a personal and cultural level. They both identify as Latinx and were first-generation college students that come from similar socio-economic backgrounds as ListoAmerica members. Mr. Gus describes a strategy for maintaining friendly and family-like relationships: “We don’t call ourselves teachers, or we’re not Mister whatever, so and so. We go by our first names. There’s no hierarchy here with the members.”
ISL organizations encourage students to stay involved with their programs throughout their pre-college schooling. In these environments, youth described how relationships with educators and peers were a reason for their persistence in their STEM programs. Daniel has been coming to TGR for several years. He describes his relationship with Ms. Hailey, one of the sciences educators at TGR, as his primary reason for continuing to attend STEM programs at TGR: “She’s my favorite. I think she’s the only reason why I come. Ms. Hope is like my best friend. She’s really always there for me. Like when I have any problems, she would come to me and be like, what’s wrong? She would take me to her room, and we would talk. When I need somebody, she’s always there. […] I see her every day. She’s the best.”
Six months later, during our second interview, Daniel added that one of the reasons he still comes to TGR is the staff: “I got really close with them. I kind of consider them like my family.”
Ms. Suzie, also from TGR, expressed “for some students, especially my returning students, this is like their safe space. Maybe both their parents are working, or no one is usually home… This is a place where they can see their friends from other schools.” She added that providing a safe space where students know “there’s an adult out there that cares about them, and they can come to whenever they need something” is one of the ways TGR can “make sure they do come back.”
STEM support for underrepresented youth should prioritize connecting to students’ interests, cultures, and communities. Creating a low-pressure and safe climate where students feel encouraged to experiment, and building relationships by providing emotional support, help to foster an environment where students feel not just heard and safe, but are able to nurture sincere interests in STEM. In short, we found that social, emotional, and cultural factors should not and can not be detached from STEM learning when working to achieve STEM equity.
This work will be featured at the 2022 Connected Learning Summit. To learn more about this topic, please join Dr. Maïko Le Lay on Wednesday, July 27th at 9:00am for the session “Connected Approaches to STEAM Learning.” Check out the schedule and register today!
Guest post by Maïko Le Lay, Postdoctoral Fellow at the Franklin Humanities Institute, Duke University