Connected Learning Lab to Explore Pivotal Transitions in STEM Learning and Career Development

March 29, 2021

During a recent panel discussion in honor of Black History Month, UCI alumnus Anthony Mays talked about his journey from Compton to Google and how, back in high school, it was a computer lab instructor who suggested he turn his passion for technology into a career. Such moments can be pivotal, especially in the lives of underrepresented youth, but is there a way to capture these encounters and scale them for greater impact?

Two new projects in UCI’s Connected Learning Lab are exploring this and other questions, such as how does playing a board game lead a young girl to consider an engineering degree, or how are online learning programs exposing students to a more diverse set of career options?

STEM Learning for Middle School Girls
CLL Director Mimi Ito, CLL Associate Director Vera Michalchik and Informatics Professor Kylie Peppler have received a STEM Next Opportunity Fund grant for $250,000 through the Gordon & Betty Moore Foundation for their project, “Connecting Middle School Girls’ STEM Learning Across Settings.”

The project is connected to another STEM Next project, the Million Girl Moonshot, which aims to engage one million girls in STEM learning over the next five years through afterschool and summer programs. STEM Next “turned to the Connected Learning Lab as a research partner on that project to better understand the brokering of connections between those programs and career development,” says Peppler. “What is super critical is the adults helping to make those connections for the kids — they’re the ‘brokers.’”

Peppler goes on to explain how she has played that role in her own family. “I remember watching my niece play a board game, and I could tell she was a really great computational thinker, even at a young age,” she says. “So I wanted to introduce her to Scratch and other programming platforms, and then she started enrolling in computer science courses.” Peppler and her CLL colleagues are now exploring how STEM Next programs act as brokers, helping expose kids to various opportunities. “You might want to call them ‘learning transitions,” she says.

Through the end of 2022, this CLL project will examine those transitions and the role that adults play. “We’re hoping to uncover things that are more scalable — ways that organizations are working systematically to introduce careers or to line up internships or externships in the local community — so we can identify practices that other organizations could adopt.”

Working with participants already within the STEM Next network, the CLL team will analyze how current practices translate into next steps for girls. “A lot of connected learning is about taking all of these siloed educational opportunities and creating a coherent ecosystem for the girls, but the adults in that ecosystem play a large role in setting up the linkages,” says Peppler. “It really boils down to three spheres of thought — interests, relationships and opportunities — and at the intersection of those three things is where care and learning occur.”

As discussed in the Connected Learning Lab’s 2020 report, the three spheres of learning are integrated in connected learning.

Evaluating Youth Career Development
The second CLL project is the result of a $100,000 gift awarded to Ito and Michalchik from Roadtrip Nation (which produces content, products and experiences to help individuals pursue fulfilling careers) and the Strada Education Network (which aims to provide more purposeful pathways between education and employment). Ito and Michalchik, along with CLL Senior Research Manager Amanda Wortman, will be evaluating the new Roadtrip Nation Experience online career-exploration program.

This work builds on current CLL work, funded by the Gates Foundation under the Equitable Futures initiative, which is looking at community-based nonprofits that support kids’ career development. “These community-based organizations have strategies that really help young people develop identity and develop connections,” says Michalchik. “And the leading organization that’s been working in this space for a very long time — they’re like the inventors of career identity and social connections — is Roadtrip Nation.”

The Roadtrip Nation Experience is a simple, self-contained curriculum designed to help young people better identify their interests, learn about possible careers related to those interests, and find mentors.

“We’ll be looking at their curriculum and how it’s being used in supporting young people to develop their capacity to move into gainful employment, and to understand their place in the world and how they wish to function as an adult,” says Michalchik. “Our evaluation is part of this much larger area that we’re working in, which is helping to support the transition from young person to adulthood by thinking not only about education but about meaningful engagement in the world.”

Shani Murray