Creating Community through Action

family doing activity at Orlando Science Center
Photo Courtesy of Orlando Science Center

On a farm in Nebraska, a girl works alongside her older brother to build a chicken coop to take care of her new baby chicks.

In West Virginia, a grandfather trades stories with his grandkids about his childhood watching Chuck Yeager break the sound barrier, as they work on their science project together.

A family newly arrived to Oregon, learns about an upcoming Science, Technology, Engineering & Math (STEM) family event that their child’s school is coordinating at their Vietnamese community church.

How do we make sure that every family has access to opportunities like these whether they grow up on a farm in Nebraska, have grandparents as primary caregivers in West Virginia, or are multilingual learners in Oregon? Inclusive family engagement is essential.

The Family Engagement Project shares research, resources, and training with educators and out-of-school program leaders. This work is guided by STEM Family Engagement: A Planning Tool, which elevates best practices and facilitates professional development for impactful and equitable family engagement. The Planning Tool is organized around the CARE framework: Connect, Act, Reflect, and Empower – a framework that organizes key ideas and strategies used to support and improve the capacity of program staff, families, and youth in support of STEM learning in out-of-school-time activities.  This blog focuses on the “A” for Act in the CARE framework. 

This blog is the third in the series, Growing STEM Leaders through Family Engagement. We highlight practices from the field for engaging caregivers in hands-on STEM activities with their children that shifts the dynamic from individual learning to collaboration. When families learn side-by-side with their children, the onus on who is the expert disappears and the idea of failure, or making mistakes, turns into a critical, and positive, part of their STEM learning journey. We offer four ideas to help programs build active engagement into their DNA to identify strengths and areas for improvement. This work is in service to help parents and caregivers understand and support their children’s STEM learning. 

Family science day at Orlando Science Center

Photo Courtesy of Orlando Science Center

Acting with caregivers

Families need activities and opportunities that are relatable and sustaining. When families can take activities home or see how they can apply the exercises to their everyday lives, STEM becomes more approachable and the learning has a chance to be embedded in activities both caregivers and their children enjoy.

Families in action

City Sprouts, a Boston, MA area-focused program that utilizes public school gardens as a means for teaching and learning, realized that families can be meaningfully engaged without being present at every school-based event. As they considered equitable ways to support families, three of their clubs located across Boston and Cambridge, promoted STEM family engagement activities at home by focusing on plants that can be easily grown regardless of the size or set up of the families’ home. When you have activities that caregivers can do at home with their child, they help reinforce the STEM learning of their child and also stay connected to what is happening in their child’s afterschool program. When it’s something relatable like food, the excitement and confidence grows! 

It’s important to meet families where they’re at. Just jumping in and leading STEM activities can feel overwhelming for staff and caregivers, but engagement in a STEM event can just be about engaging caregivers in an activity they already have confidence in and then making the STEM connections later. When the Cardinal Community Learning Center in Crete, NE was planning their STEM Family Night they wanted to be inclusive of all their families, including the Spanish and Karen speaking families that represented a majority of the school district’s multilingual learner community. Reaching out to one of the Karen caregivers regarding what authentic food could be showcased at family night, turned into her sharing detailed recipes and ultimately, taking on a more active role in the event regarding food planning and preparation. 

family doing activity in Orlando Science Center

Photo Courtesy of Orlando Science Center

Acting with youth

The beauty of STEM is that it’s evolving. What STEM looks like today is different from what was imagined decades ago. When caregivers and youth learn together, caregivers can share their experiences using and learning STEM in their childhood and youth are able to share their current lived experiences with STEM. When STEM role models and professionals are included in these activities, youth can see their role in shaping STEM for the future.

Youth in action

Challenge Island San Diego Coastal, based in San Diego, CA, leads programs to increase girls’ interest in STEAM learning and careers. During the pandemic, they saw an increased interest in their remote STEAM workshops with families and decided to capitalize on that with a variety of family engagement opportunities after COVID restrictions were lifted. Exploring STEAM careers, the Challenge Island team held a Career Exploration workshop where elementary-age girls worked with their caregivers to achieve Girl Scout badges. Through the IF/THEN website, families learned about traditional and nontraditional jobs in STEM and girls followed up on this new learning by interviewing family members and creating vision boards to connect the dots on their learning. Because these activities were not exclusive to the program site, families were able to have these discussions with the girls at home as well as with other families in community spaces they congregate, like church.

The everyday tech we use, like smartphones, are important STEM tools families use in sharing our stories. It can also be used in asking questions about what STEM means to our families, especially our elders, and is exactly what middle school girls in West Virginia did as a STEM activity with Lincoln County Schools Project Pride in Hamlin, WV. Speaking to their grandparents, many of whom serve as their caregivers, was a way of bridging the generational gap and respecting each other’s lived experiences.

Acting with staff

Creating deep connections helps us as we develop culturally-responsive and sustaining hands-on STEM activities. This can be achieved when families and educators share and relate to their own lived experiences. When we look beyond what is state of the art in STEM to what is relevant, relatable and approachable for families and their everyday lives, we illustrate its creativity and help answer the question, “Why STEM?”

Staff in action

Emily Duguid, VP of Education at the Orlando Science Center, shares how “we encourage families to engage in STEM activities during family events. It is a great opportunity to connect and learn together. Sometimes caregivers will stand to the side to allow their child to interact with the activity themselves out of fear they may do something incorrectly. We invite them to work through the activity with their child and share that there can be multiple solutions to STEM activities. We’ve gone through a lot of iterations on the best approach to encourage full caregiver engagement and found that it’s not enough to just invite them to work through an activity…it can be helpful to model engagement by facilitating one activity with a child and caregiver using a station card as a guide. We also have staff rotate through the space visiting with families to assist by answering questions or asking questions to encourage further exploration. “

Partnerships are a critical way for the Orlando Science Center to ensure their activities are sustaining. During STEM Next’s six-month long virtual Community of Practice (CoP), Emily and her team began outlining a family engagement plan with a goal of incorporating all parts of the CARE framework. What became most obvious to her at the end of the CoP is that she couldn’t do this work alone, she needed to meet the youth where they were at. Emily adds “In our Neighborhood Science program, we provide afterschool workshops weekly to elementary-aged children. With this consistent presence at the City of Orlando’s Neighborhood Center, we have built a strong partnership with their staff in reaching our goals of family engagement. We coordinate together on events to provide food, resources and STEM activities families can engage together in.”

Reminding ourselves and emphasizing to families that STEM is everywhere, even in our backyard, is how the Growing Great Minds (G2M) team in Wausau, WI was able to make an impact in their rural community. While G2M has many state-of-the-art STEM resources like a planetarium and technical college, what got families really excited about STEM and helped dispel the stigma was getting in nature through their “Science of Birds” event. The weekend event ensured that more caregivers were available to attend at a location that was accessible by car and foot to help resolve a lot of transportation issues. The day became bigger than just a science event, it was an opportunity for families to visit a new place that was close to their homes, enjoy the fresh air, and do something physical. In addition, with take-home birder kits, families were able to try out their new found skills on their own!

family doing activity at Orlando Science Center

Photo Courtesy of Orlando Science Center

Support professional development and build the capacity for active and collaborative learning

STEM Next offers professional development that supports family engagement in STEM. Whether via a community of practice, in-person workshops, or one-time webinars, embedding the practice of family engagement into your PD ensures that out-of-school-time practitioners are able to share strategies and resources, reflect on how to overcome barriers that limit access, and plan with other program partners. 

Professional development in action

For the STEM Education and Innovation Center, or STEM EIC, a nonprofit that addresses inequalities in STEM education by providing afterschool programs, camps and workshops to youth where they live,  participating in family engagement workshops and the STEM Next community of practice helped cement the importance of the CARE framework in developing a clear plan for family engagement. Using the STEM planning tool gave STEM EIC credibility as a program leader in family engagement and strengthened their bond with community partners. It also helped them reimagine who a community partner can be which has helped increase program participation with their youth and families. Also, rethinking ways to turn everyday events into ones caregivers and families can attend has changed the dynamic of the family events to be all inclusive, with teens and their case managers, a group that in the past was often left out, joining in and feeling a part of the activities.

To sustain hands-on STEM engagement, meeting families where they are at, whether it’s on a theme or topic that resonates with them, at a location that is convenient like the park, church or at home, and with resources they use everyday like ingredients for a recipe, magnifies the relevance of STEM. As we continue to learn from our families, we can better equip them with the tools to support their child in STEM.

By Bunmi Esho, Family Engagement Advisor at STEM Next and Emily Duguid, Vice President of Education at the Orlando Science Center

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Bunmi Esho: I lead outreach initiatives with Endless OS Foundation and serve as family engagement advisor for the STEM Next Opportunity Fund. I was raised in the United States and Nigeria before graduating with a degree in engineering. As a child, I experienced the powerful role community engagement plays in support of families navigating an unfamiliar education system. That stuck with me, eventually leading me to a career in educational nonprofits. I believe in the critical intersection between community, education, and STEM, and in addition to my work, I volunteer with organizations like RightOn! Education and the Steering Committee for the National Academy of Engineering’s EngineerGirl. My passion for community connections has led me traveling cross-country through the US and abroad.

Emily Duguid: I am Vice President of Education at Orlando Science Center and co-investigator on a National Engineering Design Challenge with NASA investigating STEM engagement opportunities for underrepresented elementary school students. The Education department at Orlando Science Center offers field trips, outreach, camps, birthday parties, grant funded programs, and an onsite preschool. 

Growing up in a family that provided opportunities for hands-on scientific exploration, I developed a profound love for science. This passion has fueled over two decades of involvement in informal science education. I am deeply committed to the Science Center’s impactful initiatives within the community, as they play a crucial role in offering STEM experiences that might otherwise be inaccessible to youth.

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For STEM Next, family engagement is essential in accomplishing its goal of inspiring 20 million more young people with STEM opportunities by 2027. STEM NEXT supports family engagement by supporting networks of organizations that offer STEM programs in out-of-school time. With case studies, blogs, and white papers STEM Next highlights promising practices and research. These include Changing the Game in STEM with Family EngagementThe Essential Funders’ Guide to STEM-Focused Family Engagement, and Field Guide: How to Host a Community of Practice.  

The STEM Family Engagement: A Planning Tool and CARE framework were developed by the Institute for the Study of Resilience in Youth with support from STEM Next and with participation from researchers, practitioners, caregivers, state network leads, and others with expertise in STEM, family engagement, and equity. 

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