CAREER: Supporting Families’ Collective Agency as Learners in Science Centers and Museums through an Integrated Research and Practice Agenda

Tuesday, June 1, 2021 to Sunday, May 31, 2026
Resource Type:
Project Descriptions | Projects
Environment Type: 
Public Programs, Making and Tinkering Programs, Museum and Science Center Programs, Exhibitions, Museum and Science Center Exhibits
Youth/Teen (up to 17) | Undergraduate/Graduate Students | Families | Educators/Teachers | Museum/ISE Professionals | Evaluators | Learning Researchers
General STEM
Access and Inclusion: 
Women and Girls
New York Hall of Science

Recent studies have advocated for a shift toward educational practices that involve learners in actively contributing to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) as a shared and public endeavor, rather than limiting their involvement to the construction of previously established knowledge. Prioritizing learners’ agency in deciding what is worth knowing and how learning takes place may create more equitable and inclusive learning experiences by centering the knowledge, cultural practices, and social interactions that motivate learning for people across ages, genders, and backgrounds. In informal learning environments, families’ social interactions are critical avenues for STEM learning, and science centers and museums have developed strategies for prompting families’ sustained engagement and conversation at STEM exhibits. However, exhibits often guide visitors’ exploration toward predetermined insights, constraining the ways that families can interact with STEM content, and neglecting opportunities to tap into their prior knowledge. Practices in the maker movement that emphasize skill-building and creative expression, and participatory practices in museums that invite visitors to contribute to exhibits in consequential ways both have the potential to reframe STEM learning as an ongoing, social process that welcomes diverse perspectives. Yet little is known about how these practices can be scaled, and how families themselves respond to these efforts, particularly for the diverse family audiences that science centers and museums aim to serve. Further, although gender and ethnicity both affect learning in informal settings, studies often separate participants along a single dimension, obscuring important nuances in families’ experiences. By addressing these outstanding questions, 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.

Research will address (1) how families perceive and act on their collective epistemic agency while exploring STEM exhibits (i.e., how they work together to negotiate and pursue their own learning goals); (2) whether and how families’ expressions of agency are influenced by gender and ethnicity; and (3) what exhibit design features support expressions of agency for the broadest possible audience. Research studies will use interviews and observational case studies at a range of exhibits with distinct affordances to examine families’ epistemic agency as a shared, social practice. Cultural historical activity theory and intersectional approaches will guide qualitative analyses of families’ activities as systems that are mediated by the physical environment and social setting. Education activities will involve an ongoing collaboration between researchers, exhibit designers, educators, and facilitators (high-school and college-level floor staff), using a Change Laboratory model. The group will use emerging findings from the research to create a reflection tool to guide the development of more inclusive learning experiences at STEM exhibits, and a set of design principles for supporting families’ expressions of agency. A longitudinal ethnographic study will document the development of inclusive exhibit design practices throughout the project as well as how the Change Lab participants develop their sociocultural perspectives on learning and exhibit design over time. Analyzing these shifts in practice within the Change Lab will provide a deeper understanding of what works and what is difficult or does not occur when working toward infrastructure change in museums. By considering how multiple aspects of families’ identities shape their learning experiences, this work will generate evidence-based recommendations to help science centers and museums develop more inclusive practices that foster a sense of ownership over the learning process for the broadest possible audience of families.

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

Team Members

Susan LetourneauSusan LetourneauPrincipal Investigator

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