Listen Up: We Can Bridge the STEM Divide with Family Engagement Strategies that Empower

Nov 22 2018

Authors: Linda Kekelis and Ron Ottinger

STEM Next Opportunity Fund responds to GFRP's paper commissioned by the Carnegie Corporation of NY highlighting the importance of family engagement in STEM learning.  

We love how this challenge paper isn’t just another report; instead it’s a call to action and an invitation to advance the movement on family engagement. STEM Next Opportunity Fund (STEM Next) is all in; we believe family engagement is a game changer. Parents are one of the biggest influences on youth interest and persistence in STEM. And, we understand that families bring different levels of knowledge and experience in STEM as well as social capital for accessing resources for their children. We are committed to ensuring that every family has access to opportunities to support their child at home and to broker opportunities in their communities. Listening is at the heart of the imperative in the challenge paper and underlies our approach to STEM programming at STEM Next. Over the past year and a half, we have listened to and learned from families, program leaders, and researchers in the field. Here are three takeaways for family engagement.

1 Advocate relentlessly for the under-represented.

By sixth grade, economically advantaged children have spent 6,000 more hours learning out of school than youth born in under-resourced communities.[1] The statistic is sobering. STEM Next is committed to quality programming for all youth, both as a funder and advocate for out-of-school-time (OST) programs, and professional development on family engagement strategies for national youth serving organizations and state and local OST networks. Furthermore, we are committed to taking on this “opportunity gap” by advocating for family engagement in order to promote access to enrichment experiences in and out of school.

As we support family engagement, it’s crucial that the end game is not about the numbers served but who is served. Which families know about our programs? Are sign-up methods equitably accessible or do they advantage certain groups? Do all families feel welcome into STEM programs? It is imperative that we listen and learn from families so that we’re not increasing the digital divide with online and community-based programs and resources.  When EdNavigator listened to parents they flipped its model for parent engagement. Instead of requiring parents to come to them, they go to parents where they work and offer academic guidance. Family Creative Learning listened to families and responded by setting aside time for families to get to know one another and for facilitators to get to know families before they jumped into STEM activities.


Photo Credit: Greene Scholars Program

2 Empower families in STEM.

STEM can be intimidating for parents.  In a survey by Bayer, nearly one-third (31%) of parents reported that they didn’t feel confident enough in their scientific knowledge to help their child engage in hands-on science activities.[2] Parents with less formal education are even less confident.[3] Parents think they need to be the expert and have the answers. Empower parents; communicate that their encouragement is what matters most. The most effective family engagement builds upon families’ strengths—their funds of knowledge and desire to support their child. Look to Digital Youth Divas for ways to engage families with research and empower them with ways that they can readily support their child’s interests. Look to Techbridge Girls for ways to partner for culturally responsive family engagement.


Photo Credit: Greene Scholars Program

 3 Be aspirational and inspirational.

Take the challenge and build your family engagement for great potential payoff. Make it more than a one-and-done workshop with parents. Learn from NYSCI on how to develop a series of workshops that help parents understand and support learning pathways in STEM. Make it more than asking for parents to come to you. Learn from PowerMyLearning, Bedtime Math, and Math in the Mail on how you can support engagement at home. Make it more than doing STEM activities. See how the Bay Area STEM Learning Ecosystem identified ways to build upon its summer series and offer parents ideas to continue the learning—with books, places to find role models, and curated websites to support interest.


Code Next tech lab in Oakland, CA. Photo Credit: Google

Whether you are just getting started or reinventing your family engagement practices, put listening front and center so that you truly understand your families—their assets, interests, and needs. Then enlist their input as you design, pilot, evaluate, and redesign your programs.

We look forward to your journey—with its successes and lessons learned—in creating the next generation of family engagement in STEM. We invite you to check out our resources to support family engagement in STEM and offer to be a thought partner on your journey. As you make discoveries, share them with us ( and others so that collectively we learn and grow.


We close with a shout out to the Carnegie Corporation of New York. Through its investments, the Corporation has elevated family engagement by supporting nonprofit organizations that work with parents and strengthen the field’s capacity to take family engagement to a new level—by listening to parents and co-designing next generation approaches. We also celebrate the Global Family Research Project for its longstanding leadership in empowering families.

Linda Kekelis, PhD, is an advisor for STEM Next Opportunity Fund and founder of Techbridge Girls. Family engagement has been a passion for Kekelis and at the center of the research and programs she has led. @LindaKekelis 

Ron Ottinger, is Executive Director of STEM Next Opportunity Fund, the legacy venture philanthropy of the Noyce Foundation, past co-chair of the national STEM Funders Network, and current co-chair of the National STEM Learning Ecosystem Initiative.


[1] ExpandED Schools. Retrieved from

[2] Bayer Corporation. (2015). Bayer Facts of Science Education, XVII.

[3] Silander, M., Grindal, T., Hupert, N., Garcia, E., Anderson, K., Vahey, P. & Pasnik, S. (2018). What Parents Talk About When They Talk About Learning: A National Survey About Young Children and Science. New York, NY, & Menlo Park, CA: Education Development Center, Inc., & SRI International.


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