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Project Descriptions

Investigating the Development of STEM-Positive Identities of Refugee Teens in a Physics Out-of-School Time Experience

September 1, 2020 - August 31, 2023 | Media and Technology, Public Programs

Refugee youth are particularly vulnerable to STEM disenfranchisement due to factors including limited or interrupted schooling following displacement; restricted exposure to STEM education; and linguistic, cultural, ethnic, socioeconomic, and racial minority status. Refugee youth may experience a gap in STEM skills and knowledge, and a conflict between the identities necessary for participation in their families and communities, and those expected for success in STEM settings. To conduct research to better understand these challenges, an interrelated set of activities will be developed. First, youth will learn principles of physics and computing by participating in cosmic ray research with physicists using an instructional approach that builds from their home languages and cultures. Then youth periodically share what they are learning in the cosmic ray research with their parents, siblings, and science teachers at family and community science events. Finally, youth conduct reflective research on their own STEM identity development over the course of the project. Research on learning will be conducted within and across these three strands to better understand how refugee youth develop STEM-positive identities. This project will benefit society by improving equity and diversity in STEM through (1) creating opportunities for refugee youth to participate in physics research and to develop computing skills and (2) producing knowledge on STEM identity development that may be applied more broadly to improve STEM education. Deliverables from this project include: (a) research publications on STEM identity and learning; (b) curriculum resources for teaching physics and computing to multilingual youth; (c) an online digital storytelling exhibit offering narratives about belonging in STEM research which can be shared with STEM stakeholders (policy makers, scientists, educators, etc.); and (d) an online database of cosmic ray data which will be available to physicists worldwide for research purposes. This Innovations in Development proposal 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. This includes providing multiple pathways for broadening access to and engagement in STEM learning experiences, advancing innovative research on and assessment of STEM learning in informal environments, and developing understandings of deeper learning by participants.

This program is designed to provide multiple contexts, relationships, and modes across and within which the identity work of individual students can be studied to look for convergence or divergence. To achieve this goal, the research applies a linguistic anthropological framework embedding discourse analysis in a larger ethnography. Data collected in this study include field notes, audio and video recordings of naturalistic interactions in the cosmic ray research and other program activities, multimodal artifacts (e.g., students' digital stories), student work products, interviews, and surveys. Critically, this methodology combines the analysis of identity formation as it unfolds in moment-to-moment conversations (during STEM learning, and in conversations about STEM and STEM learning) with reflective tasks and the production of personal narratives (e.g., in digital stories and interviews). Documenting convergence and divergence of STEM identities across these sources of data offers both methodological and theoretical contributions to the field. The research will offer thick description of the discursive practices of refugee youth to reveal how they construct identities related to STEM and STEM disciplines across settings (e.g., during cosmic ray research, while creating digital stories), relationships (e.g., peer, parent, teacher), and the languages they speak (e.g., English, Swahili). The findings will be of potential value to instructional designers of informal learning experiences including those working with afterschool, museums, science centers and the like, educators, and scholars of learning and identity.

This Innovations in Development 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: 2005973
Funding Amount: $443,456


  • Tino Nyawelo
    Principal Investigator
    University of Utah
  • John Matthews
    Co-Principal Investigator
  • Jordan Gerton
    Co-Principal Investigator
  • Sarah Braden
    Co-Principal Investigator
  • Resource Type: Project Descriptions
    Discipline: Computing and information science | Physics
    Audience: Museum/ISE Professionals | Scientists | Youth/Teen (up to 17)
    Environment Type: Media and Technology | Websites, Mobile Apps, and Online Media | Public Programs | Afterschool Programs | Citizen Science Programs
    Access and Inclusion: English Language Learners | Ethnic/Racial | Immigrant Communities | Low Socioeconomic Status

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