Family engagement has magical powers that support children’s engagement in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). When families learn and play together, the possibilities for children to explore new talents are endless. As families work on a citizen science project, children learn that they can advocate for social justice. When they work on hands-on STEM activities, children experience the power of perseverance. These opportunities help inspire a lifelong passion for STEM.
How do we make sure that every family has access to opportunities like these whether they live in a small town in Vermont, on a reservation in Montana, in a multigenerational household in Chicago, in a foster home in Seattle, or a tech hub in Austin? Continuous and sustainable training and support for family engagement is essential.
Uplifting family engagement
Family engagement is so much more than one-time events or activities where families come to listen, watch, and participate in STEM activities. Family engagement is built upon relationships where educators, families, and community members work in partnership to understand the needs and build upon the assets of families. These relationships are built upon trust and take time to develop and nurture. The work is impactful and resource intensive. It requires a deep, long-term commitment to sustain within individual relationships and collective partnerships.
Supporting family engagement through professional development
Like STEM, family engagement requires repeated hands-on practice to build the family engagement “muscle.” Yet, there is limited opportunity to study family engagement in pre-service education programs. Most in-service learning is limited to webinars or conference sessions where promising practices are lightly covered. Out-of-school-time leaders and practitioners are looking for practical ideas for putting research into action and for real-life examples of ways to overcome barriers.
STEM Next Opportunity Fund is helping address this need with a community-of-practice model that supports family engagement in STEM. It brings together educators over an extended period to share strategies and resources, reflect on and overcome barriers that limit access, and plan with partners. In this blog we highlight three program elements that are essential for impactful professional development — the secret sauce for a community of practice in support of impactful family engagement. For a fuller description of how to plan and host a community of practice, check out our Field Guide: How to Host a Community of Practice.
1. Cultivating a community of practice
It’s about community, first and foremost. Participants appreciate hearing about the bright spots and challenges that others experience. These discussions affirm what they are doing well, create space to ask for help with challenges, and offer new ideas and resources to take back to programs.
Lessons learned for building community. It is important to find the ideal balance between “leading” learning and enabling knowledge to arise within the community. The magic of this model unfolds when participants are empowered to take the lead in sharing their expertise. The best engagement comes through intentional facilitation that helps participants feel safe to participate fully and supports individual styles of interaction, whether verbal or written. The Field Guide describes strategies for building rapport and facilitating robust discussions within groups. These include allowing sufficient wait time for folks to speak up and supporting participants who need encouragement to participate.
2. Making connections between research and practice
We provide readings that connect research and practice in advance of each session. These readings address topics like listening to families and designing programs with families, empowering families with resources and research, and making STEM accessible and a part of families’ routines. They describe examples of family engagement in action and highlight barriers and lessons learned to overcome them in authentic ways.
Lessons learned for finding “just right” readings. From our pilot, we learned what participants need and shy away from readings that need to be “translated” for program staff. We avoid longer, more academic readings and look for quick reads that are still informed by research yet practical and easy to apply, and written in an accessible style. When selected with care, readings are enthusiastically shared across staff, partners, and organizations. While most participants have been satisfied with the selection, a few want more. We now offer optional readings and more choices to accommodate a range of participants.
3. Putting ideas into action
Our community of practice presents lots of information — promising practices, resources, research, and ideas from participants. We heard from participants that they need help taking this information and creating a plan of action. In response to this need, STEM Next supported the development of STEM Family Engagement: A Planning Tool by the Institute for the Study of Resilience in Youth. This tool provides strategies and examples that are organized around the framework CARE: Connect, Act, Reflect, and Empower. The accompanying workbook provides exercises for promoting effective and equitable family engagement in STEM — an actionable roadmap for setting goals, strategies, and measurements of progress.
Lessons learned for supporting action plans. In general, we found that participants are aspirational in their plans — typically trying to do too much and underestimating the effort their plans will require. We help them narrow down their goals to set them up for success with smaller wins and to ease the effort that will be required of staff and partners. We offer personalized coaching in which participants discuss their action plans, talk through potential challenges, and refine their goals and actions for family engagement.
Family engagement is a journey. A community of practice can help programs move along on this journey and work in partnership with families to support STEM. In future blogs, we will share examples of partners who participated in our communities of practice and how they support family engagement. Linda Kekelis. I am an advisor for the STEM Next Opportunity Fund. I have devoted my lifetime to supporting families and educators in encouraging youth in STEM. I am grateful to all the families I met over the years who shared their hopes, dreams, and ideas that have helped me appreciate the power of family engagement. In my role as a grandmother, I enjoy experiencing family engagement in a new light, for a new generation. Bunmi Esho. I lead outreach initiatives with Endless OS Foundation and serve as an 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. I love road trips and have traveled cross-country through the US and abroad. STEM Next Opportunity Fund works toward dismantling the opportunity gap in STEM so that all youth can thrive and explore their potential. The Family Engagement Project helps support this mission. STEM NEXT supports family engagement by supporting networks of organizations that offer STEM programs in out-of-school time. With case studies, research-to-practice blogs, and white papers STEM Next highlights promising practices and research. These include Changing the Game in STEM with Family Engagement and The Essential Funders’ Guide to STEM-Focused Family Engagement: Seven Strategies to Support Families in Advancing Young People’s Interests, Persistence, and Achievement.