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Broadening Participation in STEM Through Community Engagement

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Advancing STEM interest and engagement has increasingly demanded the creation of complementary education strategies to support continued growth and achievement of underserved populations. Broadening participation in STEM refers to the increase of participation of individuals and groups from historically underserved populations when dealing with professions, studies, and societal decision-making with STEM subjects. These marginalized communities include women and girls, people of color, the economically disadvantaged, and people with disabilities. Research has continually shown that when opportunities to participate in STEM are increased in availability to these communities, a more diverse and robust STEM workforce and society will result. 

Since school-aged children spend only a small percentage of their “awake” hours in school, STEM engagement outside of school is a viable and valuable resource to provide STEM learning opportunities. Public and community engagement in STEM activities can add considerable value and inspire young people to engage in STEM. Community-based organizations have increasingly realized the importance of engaging school-aged children as well as the immediate and larger community that supports them, in a wide range of useful skill sets, including STEM knowledge, problem solving, digital literacy, team building, and leadership. Still, there exists a pressing need for additional opportunities. 

The Agency Model

Colorado State University’s STEM Center developed what is known as the “Agency Model” as a more community-based alternative to the formal education “Pipeline Model.” This new model reimagines the methods through which STEM is delivered to underrepresented communities by recognizing the myriad ways that STEM is available to those communities and the individuals in them. These ways could present themselves not only in individual choices of study and career pursuits but also in STEM as it presents itself in everyday life. Generally, this approach focuses on valuing all people and their cultural experiences, and applying STEM research to current social and community issues. Some specific approaches of the Agency Model include “place-based STEM learning” and “community-based participatory research.” 

Place-based learning is a pedagogical approach that uses local environments, communities, and phenomena to shape curriculum content, with the aim to bring about more buy-in, interest, and eventually stewardship over participants’ future STEM outlooks and directions. For example, Environmental Awareness Group (EAG), a nonprofit, nongovernmental organization on the twin island nation of Antigua and Barbuda, provides informal environmental STEM education resources and activities that engage the local community to promote and sustain responsible use of the country’s wildlife and natural resources. 

Community-based participatory research involves those in the community having an active part in the planning and implementation of the STEM experience taking place. In the U.S., the National Science Foundation’s funded program, Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) routinely incorporates community members as stakeholders in their STEM outreach efforts. Similarly, France’s Agence Nationale de la Recherche funds the Gender-Net Plus program, which “contributes to knowledge creation in relation to promoting gender equality in research funding and the integration of the gender dimension into research content.”

girls in science

Community organizations are increasingly incorporating STEM into their programs to further engage students’ natural curiosity. Both larger, established organizations such as the Girl Scouts of America, Asante Africa Foundation based in East Africa, EASE in Europe, and First Robotics, along with more localized, grassroots collectives, have increasingly recognized that informal STEM education programming is an important vehicle for closing firmly established achievement gaps prevalent in historically underserved populations. Most of these local organizations are often constrained by limited resources and inadequate facilities but continue to push forward in their STEM outreach efforts. Increasing awareness of and engagement with these organizations, which provide authentic community engagement, will hopefully lead to greater access and increased effectiveness of these programs. As long as community members have a belief that they have a real stake in the direction and shaping of these programs, their interest and involvement will be a self-sustaining one. ABE is proud to highlight and/or be associated with several of these innovative projects. 

ABE’s very own Dr. Diane Courington successfully used a partnership with Bellarmine University and the Boys and Girls Club of Louisville, KY (U.S.), to provide opportunities and increase STEM exposure to middle and high school students in the highly underserved Westend community of Louisville. And ABE Singapore has developed the AMPower program to provide students with fewer opportunities (these are primarily children of migrant families who have low-incomes and do not have the resources to engage their children in enrichment programs) a chance to engage in hands-on STEM learning. The 3-day program takes place at the Singapore Science Centre, and on the last day, families are invited to see what their children have been doing and to share a meal together.

Dr. Calvin Mackie, founder of STEM NOLA and an EDC partner, routinely engages the populace of his native New Orleans as well as the greater Louisiana region through community-based STEM learning opportunities, projects, and outreach programs. STEM NOLA’s “STEM Fest” and “STEM Saturdays” reach students across grade levels, as well as their families in both urban and rural environments across the state. The STEM Saturdays are held in gymnasiums at schools in the area, and engage university faculty and students to help engage young people and their families. One of STEM NOLA’s STEM Fests takes place in the town of Grambling, Louisiana through a partnership with Grambling State University.

Who Can Carry Out This Outreach?

Grambling State University is one of several of America’s historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), which are uniquely positioned to carry out community outreach in STEM. Elsewhere in the U.S., the Environmental Protection Agency’s Community Engagement and STEM Outreach Program engages several HBCUs in North Carolina to strengthen and promote interest in STEM careers in many of the high-minority population communities where they’re located. Graduate students and professors from these HBCU’s engage K–12 students and families in environmental STEM programs through guest speaking, science fairs, camps and community partnerships. 

In London, Imperial College of London uses two education spaces in the city to perform outreach to primary and secondary school students in the region. Similarly, Federation University in Ballarat, Australia, outside of Melbourne, provides STEM education experiences to surrounding communities through their Women in Engineering, Education, Science and Technology (WE2ST) program as well as a myriad of school based programs such as National Science Week and The Santos Science Experience.

These examples of grassroots and community-based STEM outreach continue to remove barriers for students and families who lack many of the resources needed and required to be an active and contributing force to the critical global STEM workforce and to be engaged and knowledgeable citizens. This will be important in creating a more sustainable, just, and culturally thriving global society and to drive solutions to the challenges humans face. 

How Can ABE Program Sites Engage in Such Efforts?

ABE program sites can engage with local community-based organizations and schools to provide out-of-school biotechnology learning experience in a number of ways. Holding weekend and school holiday events that engage children and families, attending STEM or science education outreach events and offering hands-on experiences, or offering to hold sessions during programming at community-based organizations are terrific opportunities to reach young people and their families firsthand. ABE program sites have used the Foundations of Biotech micropipetting and gel electrophoresis labs, PTC testing, and developed additional activities that work well in such contexts. You can see some of these activities here:

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