As part of its overall strategy to enhance learning in informal environments, the Advancing Informal STEM Learning (AISL) program funds efforts that seek 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 project will achieve these aims by identifying and closely evaluating critical factors and processes that are necessary to effectively broaden access and sustain professional learning (PL) for educational professionals working within informal STEM learning (ISL) settings. The context for this work builds on an evidence-based and nationally field tested professional learning model, Reflecting on Practice (RoP). This model will be refined to provide ISL educators with increased access to a proven PL curriculum via an in-person or blended approach, enhanced localized support, and cultivated regional professional learning communities. There is still little known about the effectiveness of blended PL within informal contexts. The emphasis on greater accessibility to PL is particularly important to the ISL field, given the significant number of informal STEM educators and institutions in underserved and remote locations, often facing disparate and insurmountable challenges in access to high quality STEM professional development. This modular program will not only target a broad range of informal institutions; varying in size, STEM content foci, geographic location and communities served but it is also uniquely designed for institutional customization and adoption, further increasing the likelihood of wide-spread uptake, participation, and engagement. If successful, this broad implementation effort will directly impact over 3,000 informal science educators and professionals in nearly 350 informal STEM learning institutions across the country. The intended theory of action and iterative, design-based implementation approach will be closely monitored, documented and analyzed by an experienced team of external evaluators, using formative and summative evaluative methods. A mixed methods approach will be employed to: (a) examine the effectiveness and accessibility of blended PL and regional PLCs for the ISL field, (b) identify critical design features in blended PL and regional PLCs for impacting educators' practice, (c) determine how PLCs can develop and continue in ISL through looking at what system of support is needed, and (d) ascertain the effective role of the Leaders and Leadership Sites. Data will be collected at all levels - from the RoP directors and PIs, document reviews, interviews and observations with RoP leaders at the six partnering institutions, and surveys with the RoP facilitators (n=700) and informal STEM educator participants (n=2,000). The results of the findings could be instrumental in the development of future frameworks and models designed to broadly disseminate similar professional learning models effectively within ISL contexts.
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