Areas of U.S. lack equitable access to informal STEM learning, study says

Image: Texas A&M AgriLife

A team of researchers at Texas A&M University and Colorado State University found that micropolitan and high-poverty counties and certain communities of people—specifically Indigenous populations—lack equitable access to informal learning opportunities in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).

The researchers studied the locations of informal learning institutions (ILIs) that provide access to STEM-learning opportunities.

Members of the research team included Texas A&M AgriLife Research’s Rachel Short, Rhonda Struminger, and Michelle Lawing, in the Department of Ecology and Conservation Biology and undergraduate researchers James Pippin and Minna Wong. Collaborators from Colorado State University included Jill Zarestky, and graduate student Lauren Vilen.

In their article, recently published in Science Advances, the researchers propose that more opportunities for informal STEM learning should exist in these communities.

An avenue for improving science literacy and representation in STEM

The article also notes that availability of these learning opportunities is critical to ensuring the general public has access to scientific information—especially those who might otherwise be historically excluded in STEM, such as minorities, girls and women.

“Creating informal STEM education opportunities within underserved areas and for underrepresented groups can reduce barriers, promote science literacy, and contribute to better representations in STEM careers,” the article explains.

In the publication, the research team stressed that ILIs such as zoos, aquariums, museums, science centers, public libraries, national parks, biological field stations and botanical gardens allow visitors to explore and process STEM-related information to which they might not otherwise have access.

Texas A&M University hosts similar institutions within the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, including The Gardens at Texas A&M University and the Ecology and Natural Resources Teaching Area, ENRTA, where the public can engage in STEM-related learning outside of a standard classroom environment, free of charge. The ENRTA was one of the ILIs included in the dataset for this study.

High-poverty and metropolitan communities, Indigenous groups most affected

To conduct this research, the team mapped the locations of ILIs across the United States and compared the locations with population data, measures of poverty, and demographic information relating to race and ethnicity.

Through this analysis, the researchers identified 48 counties across the Great Plains, southeast and northwest of where no informal learning institutions exist at all, leaving over 327,000 people without adequate access to informal STEM education.

These ILI deserts disproportionately affect Indigenous and impoverished people, their data suggests. Further exploring this relationship, the team identified that micropolitan areas, those distant from metro areas but having populations of 20,000 or more people, are also underserved by ILIs.

Using their findings, the research team provides recommendations for future collaborations to bring ILIs to these geographic regions, void or lacking informal learning opportunities in STEM, to broaden participation of underserved populations.

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