STEM Accessibility Is a Family Affair - ASCD
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July 29, 2021

STEM Accessibility Is a Family Affair

It is important that young children and their caregivers, particularly in historically marginalized communities, see STEM as relevant and available to them.

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Technology

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the face of every aspect of our lives—from remote schooling to telehealth to curbside shopping to face masks. As educators, we have all felt the need to adapt successful practices by bringing them online, using new tools for engagement, and supporting learners and families in myriad ways.

It is well-documented that people from certain communities, including immigrants, those from lower socioeconomic statuses, and Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC), have been historically excluded in STEM education pathways (and therefore STEM careers) (NSF 2014; Temming, 2021; Woolston, 2021). Some of these observed disparities can be traced back to lack of access to STEM experiences for children hailing from these communities.

Families can play an important role in supporting learners to pursue STEM learning opportunities, both in and beyond the classroom (White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans, 2016). For instance, while families from wealthier socioeconomic backgrounds might register their elementary-age children in robotics camp, coding clubs, or science afterschool programs, families in other communities may be unaware of these opportunities or may simply not believe that their families belong in these spaces.

In response to some of these realities, our team created a pilot program, which came to be known as Family Outreach and Research in Education and STEM (FLORES). In FLORES, we work with young children, ages 5-7, paired with their adult caregivers to engage the families in STEM activities in an outside-of-school setting. FLORES gives young learners access to hands-on science and engineering activities. More importantly, FLORES seeks to support the children’s caregivers through co-learning and sharing facilitation strategies. We demonstrate to families that science and STEM learning opportunities are everywhere and that caregivers can use questioning strategies to help their children make detailed observations, predict outcomes, and support their ideas with evidence.

Since 2015, FLORES has been implemented in several schools and districts in New York State and in Dublin, Ireland. The typical implementation consists of four sessions, held in the evenings at a local elementary school, followed by a communal dinner. So far, we have conducted FLORES in both English and Spanish. All materials we provide (worksheets, PowerPoints, etc.) are available in both languages. For families who speak other languages at home, we encourage caregivers to speak with their children in the home language during the sessions.

Each session features a STEM activity, such as learning about stimulus and response with earthworms, sound and waves, material properties, or an introduction to coding (see Resources). Families participate in the hands-on experience together, constructing explanations and making connections to other aspects of their lives. For example, when conducting the earthworm investigation, learners put different liquids like juice and vinegar on a cotton swab and place it near the earthworm. Students often say that earthworms “don’t like” the vinegar, and the facilitator might ask, “How do you know?” The student will then share that the worm curls up and quickly moves away from the swab.

Through this exchange, we are asking the children to support their assertions with evidence from the investigation. We introduce the terms “stimulus” and “response” and then ask the families to provide examples of where they have observed this phenomenon in other settings. Students have noted, for instance, that their dogs bark when the doorbell rings, or pigeons in the park fly away when approached too closely by humans.

The facilitators also provide explicit instruction to caregivers on how to facilitate STEM learning, such as supporting students to make observations or asking questions to promote meaning-making. Between sessions, families are given “homework” that asks them to observe STEM ideas in their home, school, and community. For instance, after an investigation of material properties using a model of a doghouse (Marrero, Gunning, and Buonamano, 2016), we ask families to notice how the materials of different things at home relate to their purposes. Families come back with examples such as glass windows allowing light through, cloth towels soaking up water for easy drying, and baseballs having ridges/seams for easy grip. Through this program, we build caregivers’ self-efficacy in science, as well as their ability to recognize science in their everyday lives (Gunning, Marrero, and Morell, 2016).

Typically, facilitators from the Mercy College Center provide onsite training for teachers to conduct the FLORES program at different schools. This year, we decided to adapt the program for a remote learning format for kindergarten and 1st grade children and their families. To make FLORES accessible at home, we had to make a few adjustments to fit within the limitations of a take-home STEM kit we provided to each family. For the coding activity, we had no way to know what kind of technology or applications families had available to them at home, so we decided to purchase a mouse robot for each family to use and keep.

Our STEM kits included three separate baggies, one for each activity, that we labeled with all necessary materials. For example, in the activity “A House for Chase the Dog,” students had to solve a real-world problem: Chase the dog loves to be outside, but what if it rains? What would be the best roofing material for his doghouse? Students used a milk carton with the top cut off as the model for the doghouse. The students tested various materials for the roof of their doghouse to see which material would keep Chase dry. In the kit, we included a lab sheet, a milk carton with the top cut off, several roofing materials to test (aluminum foil, cardboard, plastic, felt, coffee filter, and wax paper), tools to simulate rain (dropper, spray bottle, cup with holes in the bottom), a pie tin to catch the rain, and a few rubber bands to secure the roofing materials to the doghouse. The kits were sent home with our in-person students a few days before the first session. Remote families picked up their kits at the school.

The FLORES facilitators met with a Mercy College Center for STEM Education team member for a two-hour training held by Zoom the week before the program started. Through the training, the teacher facilitators participated in each activity as students would. It was critical for everyone to try out the activities ahead of time, helping us understand how the remote environment would impact our lessons and to troubleshoot potential issues. For example, during the coding lesson, students were given a set of instructions to follow to mimic how a robot follows directions (take two steps forward, turn right, take five steps backwards, etc.). The facilitators had to be mindful of the amount of space available to students at home.

Since our students and families had used the Zoom platform for hybrid and remote learning, we held a 60-minute Zoom session for each activity. Prior to the session, we emailed parents the Zoom link and instructions on any preparation that needed to be done beforehand. In addition, we offered a Padlet, which is an online post-it board, on which parents could share pictures of their children engaging in the investigations.

After the sessions, parents completed a survey to share their experience and give feedback, and a few parents participated in follow-up interviews. One family noted, “My son looked forward to every Thursday evening learning and doing something new with the science program. He enjoyed the engineering part about building the doghouse, sound waves going through cup phones and the programmable mouse.” A mother explained that it was important to her “that I learned and had fun with my child.” Another parent noted that they learned that children are able to understand science at a much younger age than they had thought. We were thrilled that families responded so positively to this new version of the FLORES program, and noted that holding the sessions remotely did offer some advantages. For instance, caregivers did not have to arrange childcare for siblings and did not have to travel back to the school in the evenings.

Engaging families in STEM learning was especially important during a school year in which we were all so disconnected from school and from one another. FLORES builds community among the participating families and connection to their children’s elementary school. It is important that young children and their caregivers, particularly in historically marginalized communities, see STEM as both relevant and accessible to them, and for them to see themselves as belonging within the STEM fields.

References

Gunning, A. M., Marrero, M. E., & Morell, Z. (2016). Family learning opportunities in engineering and science. The Electronic Journal for Research in Science & Mathematics Education, 20(7).

Marrero, M. E., Gunning, A. M., & Buonamano, C. (2016). A House for Chase the Dog. Science and Children, 53(5), 76.

National Science Foundation (NSF), National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics. (2014). Chapter 3. Science and Engineering Labor Force Science and Engineering Indicators 2014. Retrieved from https://www.nsf.gov/statistics/seind14/index.cfm/chapter-3/c3s5.htm#s2

Temming, M. (2021). STEM’s racial, ethnic gender gaps are still strikingly large. Science News. Retrieved from https://www.sciencenews.org/article/science-technology-math-race-ethnicity-gender-diversity-gap

White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans (2016). Fact Sheet: Supporting Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) Success among African American Students. Retrieved from https://sites.ed.gov/whieeaa/files/2016/09/STEM-Fact-Sheet-9.22.16.pdf

Woolston, C. (2021). Minority representation in US science workforce sees few gains. Nature 592, 805-806. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-021-01089-6

End Notes

FLORES was developed by the team at the Mercy College Center for STEM Education, and the authors welcome schools and community organizations to contact us to learn how to use our free materials and adapt them for families in your community. There are slide decks and worksheets for each activity in English and Spanish, along with other resources for caregivers, such as question stems for facilitating STEM investigations.

Partial support for this work was provided by NSF Award #1758317. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

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