Informal Learning Pathways through Mapathons for Military and Veteran Communities
As part of its overall strategy to enhance learning in informal environments, the Advancing Informal STEM Learning (AISL) program funds innovative research, approaches and resources for STEM learning in a variety of settings. Many military veterans who seek to transition to higher education or workforce pathways find it challenging to translate the skills they acquired during service to civilian STEM settings and the modern day workforce. Yet many returning veterans have significant experience with STEM fields, including mapping and geospatial technologies, because of their unique functions and service assignments. Such geospatial skills are useful for location-aware industries, citizen science and public services. At the same time, military and veteran families have been largely overlooked as an important public audience for focused informal STEM learning. Informal learning events called "mapathons" which enlists participants to mapping exercises and create geospatial data on open platforms that address authentic needs in their communities and the broader society at large. When seeking to further their education upon returning from service, veterans' typical options have included some form of formal higher education. Mapathons may be a feasible bridging activity that (a) recognizes veterans' unique, valuable, and in-demand STEM skills and (b) supports lifelong learning.
This pilot research seeks to understand how informal learning experiences such as mapathons are viable pathways for veterans to transition to the civilian workforce. The conceptual approach pays attention to the realities of the life course of military and veteran families, especially building upon theories of change related to transitions to include a spatial component. The foundation of the project's intellectual merit is its explicit inclusion and sensitivity to place, scale, and spatial behavior, building directly from findings of prior NSF-funded projects and the evidence base for informal learning pathways. The research will contribute to knowledge about workforce development by addressing the questions: (1) To what extent do veterans recognize that their extant skills acquired, in military settings, are translatable to civilian STEM settings?; (2) How can informal learning experiences help a diverse veteran population increase awareness of the translatability of geospatial workforce competencies, build confidence in technology skills, and motivate interest to pursue formal studies in STEM fields in general?; and (3) What pathways do which veterans favor when they could pursue formal STEM higher education learning among an array of choices online or at regional sites, and why? The study will engage 320 participants at 8 sites across Texas; employ in-depth surveys and interviews; and use spatial analysis to elicit insights about the research questions.
Military and veteran families include a significant number of people from group typically underrepresented in STEM fields. Supporting more veterans to transition successfully to higher education pathways or careers in STEM is a vital service to the nation. This study on informal to formal pathways for veterans will include an innovative understanding of the importance of place in meaning-making and in the reality of choices they consider during the transitions of their life course.
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.