Four Takeaways from STEM Programs That Empower Families

Sep 4 2018

Authors: Linda Kekelis, PhD, Kara Sammet, PhD, and Emily Dilger, PhD

Four Takeaways from STEM Programs That Empower Families

STEM Next Opportunity Fund offers four promising practices for engaging caregivers in STEM in a variety of settings, including schools, libraries, public housing, community centers, and museums.  


Photo Credit: Family Creative Learning

STEM Next Opportunity Fund has been on a listening and learning tour of programs with innovative methods for involving parents and caregivers in STEM learning. In this blog, find out what they’ve learned from partners championing out-of-school-time STEM in schools, libraries, public housing, community centers, and museums. 

Artificial intelligence, biotech breakthroughs, apps beyond imagination. Opportunities in STEM abound, and the future couldn’t be brighter for today’s youth to become tomorrow’s innovators. Although gaps in the opportunities available to youth create unequal access to STEM career pathways, a few exemplary programs are bridging this divide through family engagement.   

At the heart of family engagement is the belief that we, as providers, always have more to learn from the families we serve. The most important elements of effectively co-constructing family engagement to support children’s learning is approaching program design with an open mind, asking for and truly listening to family’s spoken and unspoken feedback, and committing to refining practices based on that input. In this blog, we share four promising practices and lessons learned for engaging families in STEM.  

1. Listen and learn with families.

Invite families “to the table” to understand what they want. Create an environment that empowers them to share their dreams for their children so that program providers understand their needs. Consider your work with parents a partnership—ensure that they feel comfortable sharing potential challenges that could prevent them from participating, and work with them to brainstorm solutions. Finally, maintain communication channels for families to provide ongoing feedback: think of your design as a continuous work in progress, and iterate solutions in the pursuit of equal access.  

In practice. Family engagement emerged as a priority out of a listening campaign of the Bay Area STEM Ecosystem, a network of organizations in the San Francisco Bay Area working collectively to improve equity and access to STEM learning opportunities. When invited to share their concerns and needs, parents expressed feeling disconnected from what their children were learning in school, unsure how to support their children on STEM pathways, and not clear about opportunities for their children in STEM careers.  

STEM Learning Ecosystem Communities

STEM Learning Ecosystem Communities

In response, partners in the Bay Area Ecosystem hosted a summer series of 10 workshops that gave parents the chance to engage in hands-on STEM alongside their children. When parents experienced the joy and rewards of working with their children on design challenges and science activities, they asked how they could continue these projects at home. For example, when a mother saw how interested her daughter was in extracting DNA from a strawberry, she asked for the recipe. Facilitators learned from parents the importance of creating opportunities for continued learning, including take-home activities, reading lists of STEM books, places to find role models, and programs that take STEM interest to the next level. 

2. Always, always be mindful of access and equity.

We need to ensure that we’re not increasing the digital divide. While there is a growing abundance of STEM opportunities, it is still difficult for many families without a STEM background to find and access them. By working with parents, we can be more successful in how resources are marketed and where and when family STEM programs are held. These factors influence who learns about a STEM opportunity, who feels welcome at a family workshop, and who can relate to and learn from the resources offered.  


Photo Credit: Google Parent of an Oakland student at one of Code Next’s monthly workshops shares his creation with the community  

In practice. As part of their goal to serve more families who hadn’t yet been supported with STEM programs, partners in the Bay Area STEM Ecosystem designed for accessibility. Rather than asking parents to go to 10 different locations, the partner groups made a strategic decision to host the summer series at one centrally located and easily accessible place in the community. The host site, the Community Learning Center in South San Francisco, is a trusted resource for family support that offers afterschool programs, homework help, parenting classes, and English language classes. The center’s backroom was designed to engage younger children, ensuring that entire families could attend. Though these elements required greater resources, it made the programs easier for families to participate. Some partners provided free passes for families to visit museums and centers, so that the program served as a bridge to STEM institutions.  

 3. Be culturally responsive. Do the work in partnership.  

A one-size-fits-all approach won’t support families. Programs need to intentionally tap into family culture and history to be culturally responsive and “move from research and practice on families to research and practice with families that builds from their knowledge, experiences, and priorities for change.”  

In practice. Techbridge Girls—a program to expand the academic and career options for girls in STEM—wanted to expand its capacity to engage with the Somali immigrant population in the Greater Seattle Area. Despite low enrollment from this community, Techbridge Girls leadership was careful not to assume that Somali families were uninterested. Rather, they approached the Somali community with sincere curiosity about why more Somali girls weren’t participating and worked toward a more culturally responsive approach to recruiting girls and engaging with families.


 Photo Credit: SYFC


Photo Credit: SYFC

In partnership with the Somali Youth and Family Club (SYFC), a deeply connected community organization, Techbridge Girls developed a workshop series, held at SYFC, with STEM content that was culturally meaningful for the interests and needs of the families. Techbridge Girls and SYFC connected activities to the participants’ lived experiences. For instance, some of the women had been nomadic when they lived in Somalia and built and rebuilt their family dwellings. When they learned the terminology and concepts around the engineering design process, they made the connection to their own efforts designing, building, and improving the homes they created for their families. This connection validated the families’ knowledge, enabled the mothers to develop a positive STEM identity, and improved their confidence in being STEM advocates for their girls’ futures. Families also learned about the rapidly growing number of STEM jobs in the Greater Seattle region and discussed how to encourage their daughters in engineering and technology career pathways. 

4. Aspire to do more than STEM activities. Empower parents with resources. 

Family engagement often involves parents and kids doing STEM, sometimes together, sometimes apart. Whenever possible, activities that involve parents directly in their children’s learning should be simultaneously bolstered with parent education. Parents welcome and benefit from learning new strategies to support their children’s interest, build their confidence, and access resources. We know from our research that many programs are looking for ways to better support parents to support their children.  

In practice. While Techbridge Girls led activities with the Somali mothers, staff took this opportunity to talk about the engineering design process as well as research on growth mindset. Staff communicated how a child’s intelligence develops with effort and encouragement. This not only helped the mothers better understand the value of design challenges but also offered ideas for how to talk about and support their daughters’ continued interest in STEM. 

 To learn more about family engagement, we invite you to read the case studies from which these promising practices were derived: Early Wins and Lessons Learned: How the Bay Area STEM Ecosystem Engages Families and Expanding Access and Inclusion in STEM through Culturally Responsive Family Engagement   

About the Authors 

Linda Kekelis, PhD, is a consultant for STEM Next Opportunity Fund with a long-standing commitment for ensuring that all youth, particularly girls and youth of color, have access to STEM opportunities. Family engagement has been a passion for Kekelis and at the center of the research and programs she has led. @LindaKekelis 

Kara Sammet, PhD, is the founder of Gender Lenz LLC, a consulting firm that advises philanthropic and corporate social responsibility leaders on equity and inclusion strategies in STEM. Sammet received her doctorate from UC Berkeley in Social and Cultural Studies/Measurement and Evaluation with an emphasis in gender, women, and sexuality. @karasammet 

Emily Dilger, PhD, leads the Bay Area STEM Ecosystem out of the California Academy of Sciences. A neuroscientist by training and an educator by practice, Dilger is passionate about informal science education, especially for underserved communities. Her experience includes communicating science in creative ways. 

This update is part of a four-part series on family engagement in STEM learning. Join the conversation by sharing this article with your networks using #FamilySTEM.

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 Related STEM Series Resource

To learn more about how to support families' STEM learning, check out this video highlighting GFRP's research on family engagement in STEM.