Advancing SCILS (STEM, Creativity & Innovation Learning through SYNERGIES) is a unique community-wide partnership in the Parkrose neighborhood of E. Portland. With support from the Lemelson Foundation, Center affiliated researchers Lynn Dierking, Nancy Staus, and John Falk with the assistence of Jennifer Wyld and Deb Bailey are working to significantly increase the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, & Mathematics), creativity and invention learning of early adolescents under-represented in STEM. By improving the educational capacities of an entire community, this innovative project hopes to improve the chances that under-served early adolescents will be able to successfully compete in the rapidly changing world of the 21st Century.

As part of its overall strategy to enhance learning in informal environments, the Advancing Informal STEM Learning (AISL) program funds innovative resources for use in a variety of settings. This research project leverages ongoing longitudinal research to investigate whether, and if so how, youth from ages 10 to 15 in a diverse, under-resourced urban community become interested and engaged in STEM. The project addresses a global issue; fewer youth choose to major in scientific fields or take science coursework at high school or university levels. These declining numbers result in fewer STEM professionals and fewer scientifically literate citizens who are able to function successfully in an increasingly scientific and technological society. These declines are observed for youth as a whole, but are most pronounced for girls and particular non-white ethnic minorities. Data collected from youth in this community of study, including non-white ethnic minorities, mirrors this decline. NSF funding will support a five-year systematic and systemic process in which project researchers work collaboratively with existing informal and formal educational partners (e.g., museums, libraries, afterschool providers, schools) to develop sets of customized, connected, and coordinated learning interventions, in and out of school, for youth with different backgrounds, needs, and interests, all with the goal of averting or dampening this decline of STEM interest and participation during early adolescence. In addition to new research and community STEM networks, this project will result in a Community Toolkit that includes research instruments and documentation of network-building strategies for use by other researchers and practitioners nationally and internationally. 

This mixed methods exploratory study has two distinct but interrelated populations - youth and educators from across informal and formal institutions. To develop a clearer understanding of the factors that influence youths' STEM interest development over time, particularly among three youth STEM Interest Profiles identified in a secondary analysis (1-Dislike Math, 2-Like all STEM, 3-Dislike all STEM), the design combines surveys with in-depth interviews and observations. To study educators and institutions, researchers will combine interviews, focus groups, and observations to better understand factors that influence community-wide, data-driven approaches to supporting youth interest development. Research will be conducted in three phases with the goal of community-level change in youth STEM interest and participation. In Phase 1 (Years 1 & 2) four educational partners will develop interventions for a 6th and 7th grade youth cohort that will be iteratively refined through a design-based approach. Educational partners and researchers will meet to review and discuss interest and participation data and use these data to select content, as well as plan activities and strategies within their programs (using a simplified form of conjecture mapping). By Phase 2 (Years 3 & 4) four additional partners will be included, more closely modeling the complex system of the community. With support from researchers support and existing partners, new educational partners will similarly review and discuss data, using these to select content, as well as plan activities consistent with program goals and strategies. Additional interventions will be implemented by the new partners and further assessed and refined with a new 6th and 7th grade cohort, along with the existing interventions of the first four partners. In Phase 3 (Year 5) data will be collected on pre-post community-level changes in STEM interest and participation and the perceived effectiveness of this approach for youth. These data will inform future studies.