Cultivating Science: Examining the Free-Choice Science Learning Networks of Urban Gardeners

Tuesday, September 1, 2020 to Wednesday, August 31, 2022
Resource Type:
Project Descriptions
Environment Type: 
Public Programs, Park, Outdoor, and Garden Programs
Adults | Museum/ISE Professionals
Ecology, forestry, and agriculture
Access and Inclusion: 
Women and Girls
Low Socioeconomic Status
Institute for Learning Innovation

Free-choice and interest-driven learning activities are a highly significant source of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) learning for adults through their lifespans. Gardening is one such activity that is widespread across communities with one in every fifty American adults reporting an interest in gardening/plants and who associate that interest/hobby with science. While the terms interest and hobby are related, the latter refers to something one actively does, not just thinks about doing. Adults who seek out learning and participation opportunities in highly visible community spaces (e.g., gardening clubs, science centers, botanical gardens) are likely to be White and well-educated. Further understanding is needed of when and how community members from other demographic groups access different resources (people, organizations, and places) for information and opportunities, and what influences them to do so. This Pilot and Feasibility Study will explore informal learning networks in Alameda County, California, specifically around gardeners and gardening. Researchers will use surveys, focus groups, and program observations to gather data on how those who pursue self-directed scientific learning about gardening access information. Of interest is how the differential access to and pursuit of information occurs among diverse community members, especially those outside of more established Master Gardener and other organized gardening programs. This research will: 1) contribute to understanding of the resources that interest-driven adult STEM learners access, describing the barriers they perceive and how/if the accessed resources differ by gender, race, or socioeconomics; 2) determine the feasibility of a sampling approach to gather data from individuals in demographic groups who may not have been reached in prior research efforts; and 3) generate insights for informal science education practitioners and researchers about how to better support diverse interest-driven STEM learners. This project is funded by the Advancing Informal STEM Learning (AISL) program which seeks to advance new approaches to, and evidence-based understanding of, the design and development of STEM learning in informal environments.

It is hypothesized that there is a large percentage of individuals from non-dominant populations engaged in free-choice STEM learning; past efforts have likely under-counted the participation of individuals from these communities. To achieve the research aims the research team will utilize respondent-driven sampling, engaging gardening hobbyists' social contacts to recruit participants, and collect data from diverse (gender, race, socioeconomics) urban gardeners who may be differently connected to STEM learning ecosystem resources/organizations than their highly visible peers. This approach will be used to investigate the behaviors, perceptions, and outcomes related to STEM learning such as development of self-efficacy and science identity. Focus groups will provide context for themes that arise in the survey data and clarify hobbyists' participation preferences and experiences. In situ observations of learning environments comprise the third mechanism for collecting data. All three data sources will support triangulation of results and contribute to the findings. Key outcomes of this project will be to determine if the target population has been reached through the sampling approach, to identify methodological guidelines for sampling with an intent to reach those from populations under-represented in STEM-related free-choice activities, and to clarify which network variables are most useful to study. This research lays the foundation for future work. It is anticipated that the approach developed and tested in this research may be adapted by others in the future and will have the potential to serve as a model for community-based organizations and researchers interested in studying the learning ecosystems of previously hidden populations of participants, including how these individuals perceive and access resources to support their STEM learning.

This Pilots and Feasibility Studies 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

Elysa CorinElysa CorinPrincipal Investigator

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