Engaging Families


Parents play a vital role in raising youth awareness of the value of STEM and in brokering youth participation in activities that build STEM interest and skills.

For organizations that truly want to move the needle for youth in STEM, culturally responsive family engagement must be more than an add on to programs and funder strategy. Especially for girls and underrepresented youth of color, family engagement is essential to successful STEM programming, wherever informal STEM takes place, including museums, libraries, after school programs, and community centers.

Why is Family Engagement so Important?

Family engagement is a game changer. Why? Research shows that parents are one of the biggest influences on youth interest and persistence in STEM. Yet, with few exceptions, when it comes to leveraging family engagement for youth success in informal STEM, there is a disconnect between research and practice.

Every player in the STEM ecosystem –  including philanthropic and corporate funders, policy makers and practitioners – needs to put research into action by placing families at the center of STEM in out-of-school time. We believe that family engagement has the potential to change the entire field when it is a core element of programming and funding.

Our work builds on the findings of the Family Engagement Landscape Analysis for Funders by the Carnegie Corporation of New York. Their comprehensive survey of 74 philanthropic foundations found that there is significant grantmaking directed towards family engagement activities. However, they noted there is still much work to be done, including diversifying funding of activity areas, defining and measuring success, as well as identifying and growing effective practices.

Catalyzing Family Engagement in STEM

STEM Next Opportunity Fund is taking a leading role in raising awareness and inspiring programs, foundations, corporate partners and policy-makers to take action on family engagement. While our primary focus is on family engagement in out-of-school settings, we believe it is essential to bridge family engagement strategies to pre-K through 12 schools. Many of the strategies we will write about are as applicable to in school as they are to informal and out-of-school programs.

Through a multi-year project that leverages research, convenings, publications and a national social media campaign, STEM Next is pursuing an ambitious agenda on family engagement in the informal realm with application to formal education.  Our primary objectives include:

  • Identify the current state of the field, including gaps and opportunities, of family engagement for practitioners, foundations and corporations
  • Accelerate and consolidate the field’s understanding of key concepts, common language, research and evaluation related to family engagement
  • Amplify the best and promising practices for funding and implementing culturally-responsive family engagement
  • Convene foundations, corporations, national youth-serving organizations, community-based organizations, and policy makers to develop strategies for shared learning and field building to reform, elevate, and scale family engagement
  • Catalyze investments in family engagement

Our ultimate goal is to empower families to support their children’s engagement in STEM and to unleash the untapped talent of their children. The long-term success of this project will result in more parents understanding and communicating the promise of STEM to their children, and taking action to change their children’s participation and persistence in STEM.

Promising Practices

Case Studies

Early Wins and Lessons Learned: How the Bay Area STEM Ecosystem Engages Families

In this case study, Drs. Kekelis and Sammet highlight the work of the Bay Area STEM Ecosystem, which aims to increase equity and access to STEM learning opportunities in underserved communities. First, Kekelis and Sammet lay out the problems the Ecosystem is trying to solve and give a high level overview of the Bay Area STEM Ecosystem’s approach to addressing them. Then, based on field observations and interviews, Kekelis and Sammet highlight both the successes and some missed opportunities from the first collaborative program of this Ecosystem.  Both the successes of The Bay Area STEM Ecosystem–as well as the partners’ willingness to share and examine where they have room for refinements –illustrate the exemplary practice, leadership, and growth mindset of this group.

STEM Careers + Families: Learning from Centers and Museums

In today’s fast-paced, entertainment-focused world, the very best museums do so much more than provide rainy day activities that engage in the moment but lead nowhere. These institutions lay the groundwork for long-term interest and persistence in STEM. In this case study, Drs. Kekelis and Sammet showcase the work of the New York Hall of Science (NYSCI) and the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI). These museums are engaging families in innovative ways and making career exploration an important piece of their mission. Drs. Kekelis and Sammet interviewed leadership from NYSCI and OMSI to learn about their efforts and lessons learned in promoting career exploration with families. Four strategies emerged from conversations with  NYSCI and OMSI for how museums can empower families and open doors to their children’s future in STEM.


Expanding Access and Inclusion in STEM through Culturally Responsive Family Engagement

What can we do differently to improve access to and inclusion in STEM? Include families! The research is clear and consistent: Families are among the biggest influence on youth outcomes, including in STEM, and especially for girls. Importantly, families don’t need to be STEM experts themselves or to have a STEM background in order to support youth in STEM. Informal STEM programs are perfectly placed to support parents and caregivers to encourage, broker and navigate.

Culturally responsive family engagement is both a strategy and a process that maximizes the unique strengths, interests, needs, and complexities of communities who are underrepresented in STEM. As an approach to equitable and inclusive education, culturally responsive STEM is sensitive to the historical disparity of power and privilege between providers and program participants, particularly with respect to cultural differences across race, language, religion, geography, language and nationality. Why is it important? Culturally responsive family engagement intentionally taps into family culture and history to develop curriculum that is engaging and meaningful.

In this Case Study, Drs. Sammet and Kekelis highlight best practices and lessons learned from two programs – Techbridge Girls and Code Next – that serve communities with important cultural differences across race/ethnicity, religion, geography, language and immigration status. This case study offers insights for both practitioners and funders of STEM programs.

Family Engagement: Taking it to the Next Level

How can organizations integrate parent education into their STEM programs? With support, parents can learn to engage in positive interactions that spark and maintain their child’s interest in STEM. In this case study, Drs. Kekelis and Sammet highlight the Greene Scholars Program and Digital Youth Divas—two programs that are exemplary in their approach to empowering parents with research, education, and resources. While their program models, participants, and STEM-focus are quite different, these organizations offer promising practices that can benefit all communities.

Family Engagement Blog

After Hour of Code™: Family Engagement Maintains the Momentum

Imagine if family engagement was deeply tapped into during Hour of Code™ and Computer Science Education Week. Family Code Night was developed by Executive Director, John Pearce, to include  parents in sustaining children’s learning and passion for computer science. Pearce shares, “To truly overcome the digital divide we must do so in the K-5 years and in this effort we must engage the most powerful influence of K-5 children’s self-belief: parents and family.”

Read the full blog here.

How a Library’s Making Program Empowers Mothers and Daughters

Public libraries have a unique opportunity to expand the reach of STEM. “Public libraries provide a ‘third space’ beyond the formal classroom and home that can unite schools and communities around STEM education and complete the community’s STEM learning ecosystem.”1 What’s more, public libraries are accessible and trusted spaces in the community; these elements help to increase access for youth and parents who are underserved and underrepresented in STEM. In celebration of  National Library Week April 8-14, we showcase one library that expanded its mission with a new program to support families and help close the opportunity gap in STEM.

Read the full blog here.

Research Team

Linda Kekelis, PhD

Parent engagement has been part of Dr. Linda Kekelis’s  life’s work. Over 25 years ago, Dr. Kekelis embarked on designing workshops for families with grants from the American Association of University Women. As the Founder and former CEO of Techbridge Girls, Dr. Kekelis made family engagement one of the vital elements of the program and throughout her tenure committed resources to measure impact and better understand how to serve the needs of families. Dr. Kekelis led the Chevron-funded Families Matter project at Techbridge Girls, developing  resources such as Science: It’s a Family Affair guide, which was disseminated to thousands of families during the USA Science and Engineering Festivals in Washington, DC and Discovery Days at AT&T Park in San Francisco. In one of her final projects at Techbridge Girls, Dr. Kekelis developed a proposal for a human-centered approach to reimagine outreach to families, particularly those from under-resourced communities, which was funded by Clorox. Dr. Kekelis consults for informal STEM providers and STEM Ecosystem leaders.

Kara Sammet, PhD

Dr.  Kara Sammet is the Founder and Principal of Gender Lenz LLC, an inclusion and leadership consulting firm.  As a consultant for Google, she co-authored an article on the role of families on girls’ interest in computer science and conducted a landscape review on nationally scalable networks for a diversity outreach initiative. At Techbridge Girls, Dr. Sammet facilitated interviews and focus groups with dozens of parents to generate over 100 family engagement activities for a Clorox-funded outreach project. With a Ph.D. in Social and Cultural Studies from UC Berkeley, Dr. Sammet is an evaluation advisor for the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, an Executive Leadership facilitator at the UC Berkeley Extension for Corporate Education, and a consultant to philanthropic foundations and corporations on a range of inclusion and leadership initiatives.

Linda, founder of Techbridge Girls and Kara, founder of Gender Lenz, led development of Changing The Game for Girls in STEM, a Chevron-funded white paper of best practices from leaders in the field on girls in STEM. They frequently collaborate on blogs for educators, funders, and families with a focus on girls, low-income youth, and underrepresented youth of color.

What's Next

We’ve launched this important project by listening to STEM practitioners, foundations, corporations and family engagement thought leaders.

Want to hear more about what we learned from them?

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