CAREER: Investigating Black Youths’ Engineering, Innovation, and Design Practices at the Intersection of Museum and Home/Family Learning

Sunday, August 1, 2021 to Friday, July 31, 2026
Resource Type:
Project Descriptions | Projects
Environment Type: 
Public Programs, Summer and Extended Camps, Museum and Science Center Programs, Exhibitions, Museum and Science Center Exhibits, Informal/Formal Connections, Higher Education Programs
Youth/Teen (up to 17) | Undergraduate/Graduate Students | Families | Educators/Teachers | Museum/ISE Professionals
Access and Inclusion: 
Black/African American Communities
Regents of the University of Michigan - Dearborn

Informal STEM education spaces like museums can intentionally serve surrounding communities and support sustainable and accessible engagement. Building from this base, the project takes a stance that the intersection of the museum, home/family life and the youth’s internal practices and disciplinary sense of self are rooted in history and culture. Thus, this CAREER work builds on the following principles: Black families and youth have rightful presence in STEM and in STEM learning environments; Black families are valuable learning partners; and Black youths need counterspaces to explore STEM as one mechanism for creating future disciplinary agency. In partnership with the Henry Ford Museum and the Detroit-Area Pre-College Engineering Program, the project seeks to (a) expand the field's understanding of how Black youth engineer and innovate; (b) investigate the influence of a culturally relevant curriculum on their engineering practices and identity, knowledge, and confidence; and (c) describe the ways Black families and museums support youth in engineering learning experiences. The work will center on the 20-hour “Innovate” curriculum which was designed by the museum to bridge design, innovation, and creation practices with the artifacts of innovators throughout time. The project comprises six weekend “Innovate” sessions and an at-home innovation experience plus participation in an annual Invention Convention. By focusing on these aims, this research responds to the goals of the Advancing Informal STEM Learning (AISL) program, which seeks to advance evidence-based understanding of the design and development of STEM learning opportunities for the public in informal environments. This includes providing multiple pathways for broadening engagement in STEM learning experiences and advancing innovative research on STEM learning in informal environments.

The main research questions of this multiphase CAREER award are: (1) What practices do Black youths and families engage in as they address engineering, design, and innovation challenges? (2) In what ways does a culturally relevant museum-based innovation program influence the design and innovation practices and assessment performance of Black youths and families as they engage in engineering, design, and innovation across learning settings? (3) How does teaching innovation, design, and engineering through historical re-telling and reconstruction influence a youth’s perception of their own identities, abilities, and practices? and (4) How do Black families engage with informal STEM learning settings and what resources best support their engineering, design, and innovation exploration? Youth in sixth grade are the focus of the research. The work is guided by ecological systems, sociocultural learning, culturally relevant pedagogy, and community cultural wealth theories. During phase one, the focus will be to refine the curriculum and logistics of the study implementation. The investigator will enhance the curriculum to include narratives of Black innovators and engineers. Fifteen families will be recruited to participate in the program enhancement pilot and initial research cycle for phase two. In phase three another cohort of families will be recruited to participate. Survey research, narrative inquiry and digital ethnography will comprise the approaches to explore the research questions. The evaluation has a two-pronged focus: to assess (1) how well the enhanced Innovate curriculum and museum/home learning experience supports Black families’ participation and (2) how well the separate phases of the study connect and operate together to meet the research aims. The study’s findings can help families and informal practitioners leverage evidence-based approaches to support Black youth in making connections between history and out-of-school contexts to model and develop their innovative engineering practices. Additionally, this work has implications for Black undergraduate students who will develop skills through their mentorship and researcher roles, studying cultural practices and learning experiences. The research study and findings can inform the design of future museum/home learning programs and research opportunities for Black learners in informal learning spaces.

This award reflects NSF's statutory mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation's intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.

Funding Program: 
Advancing Informal STEM Learning (AISL)
Award Number: 
Funding Amount: 

Team Members

DeLean Tolbert SmithDeLean Tolbert SmithPrincipal Investigator

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