Chapter 17. Research-practice partnerships in STEM informal learning environments

Nicole A. Suarez
Temporal Dynamics of Learning Center, University of California, San Diego
Marlene Samano
Temporal Dynamics of Learning Center, University of California, San Diego
Shuying Yu
Temporal Dynamics of Learning Center, University of California, San Diego
Steven Snyder
Fleet Science Center, San Diego
Leanne Chukoskie
Temporal Dynamics of Learning Center, University of California, San Diego

Chapter 17 explores the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) educational opportunities that emerge when research-practice partnerships (RPPs) involve informal learning environments (ILEs). Specifically, three variants of the Living Laboratory model are described to demonstrate different collaborations that leverage the unique experience that ILEs provide. This chapter suggests that by having local university researchers engage with community educators and the public, a mutually beneficial relationship develops. University partners gain experience with public communication and have an opportunity for data collection. Furthermore, the exposure to local scientists, and the chance to participate in a research experiment offers encouragement for community members of all backgrounds and ages to pursue STEM fields, helping to reduce educational disparities and promote lifelong learning.


The education system in the United States has not been successful in preparing students for the careers of tomorrow in spite of multiple policy adjustments, including most recently former President Obama’s Every Student Succeeds Act. Many students see coursework in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) as a necessary evil to be tolerated in exchange for high standardised test scores. Others reject STEM subjects as they do not see themselves in future STEM careers. These students miss the important link between STEM and the innovations used daily in their own lives, such as video games, smartphones and social media. They miss the underlying power of a STEM education that teaches how to create solutions to tough problems by making observations, quantifying data, interpreting evidence, drawing inferences and testing possible solutions. To transform learning opportunities for all learners, we need to utilise all available resources, especially those found at nearby colleges and universities. Thinking creatively about engaging students in STEM can break down barriers between traditional disciplines and provide greater opportunity for all learners, regardless of background.

This chapter examines how research-practice partnerships (RPPs) in STEM informal learning environments (ILEs) can create unique educational opportunities that are enriched by the sociocultural networks in which they are embedded. These partnerships are inherently interdisciplinary and cross multiple levels of analysis, inviting learners to consider an array of STEM approaches to both scientific and societal challenges. This approach has implications for creating large-scale educational impact by leveraging community partnerships effectively, and provides opportunities to reach learners traditionally underserved by specialised STEM programming.

The importance of informal learning environments

Educational policies largely focus on schools as the main learning delivery vehicle, however, the majority of a child’s time is actually spent outside of school (Jackson, 1968[1]). This fact makes educational opportunities outside of school important, especially if the school environment is not fully resourced or the student is not engaged (National Research Council, 2009[2]). Although many places, including a home and a library, can be considered an ILE, there are locations that specifically cater to STEM learning. These locations include science centres, museums, zoos and aquariums, where members of the community can learn about a subject by interacting with exhibits, watching films and speaking to curators. What is often overlooked is the ability of these STEM ILEs to connect local communities of research with communities of practice.

ILEs engage children in socially embedded and interest-driven experiences that acknowledge and build on their own unique past learning experiences (Tudge, Scrimsher and Vygotsky, 2003[3]). STEM ILEs provide an opportunity for inquiry in a way that is both playful (Weisberg et al., 2014[4]) and emphasises the importance of family for STEM learning, especially for young learners (Fries-Britt, Younger and Hall, 2010[5]).These personal experiences can be used as a scaffold to engage children in the process of science (Eberbach and Crowley, 2009[6]).

By connecting community members to the research at regional colleges and universities, STEM ILEs are naturally positioned to leverage RPPs for the benefit of a large population of learners in a playful environment that is inclusive of family and friends. A well-designed informal learning opportunity can bring unique, engaging and importantly ongoing STEM experiences to an audience of learners of diverse backgrounds, ages and interests.

Models for research-practice partnerships in informal learning environments

RPPs for formal education environments are defined as well-established collaborations between practitioners and researchers that share the goal of investigating problems and solutions for formal education (Coburn, Penuel and Geil, 2013[7]). RPPs focused on improving formal education settings are seen as promising, however research on the efficacy of these relationships is just beginning (Coburn and Penuel, 2016[8]). Nikias and Tierney (2012[9]) called for the removal of what they termed the “firewall” between universities and public schools in the United States. They noted the relationship between socio-economic status of students and performance in college, observing that underprivileged students were behind their affluent counterparts in test scores, high school graduation rates and future salaries. However, Nikias and Tierney (2012[9]) assert that research universities, especially, can reduce this gap by engaging with their surrounding environment, creating both discipline-specific as well as interdisciplinary RPPs to benefit the broader community. Their analysis emphasises the need for participation and support from many community researchers and professionals.

Within this trend is an opportunity to nurture a variant of these partnerships that involves both educational researchers as well as STEM content experts as partners working in informal science learning environments. Such collaborations can leverage the community positioning of informal science learning environments and create mutual benefit for university partners on an individual, group and institutional level. Here we will describe a model and some variants of RPPs in ILEs.

With the support of the National Science Foundation, the Living Laboratory at the Museum of Science in Boston ( developed an educational model blending the concepts of research and outreach (Corriveau et al., 2015[10]). Research teams offered experiments for museum patron participation with several goals in mind. The researchers sought to actively connect with the public around a scientific question. Museum patrons (typically parent-child pairs) engaged in an experiment with the researcher on the museum floor, out in the open for other museum patrons to see. The LivingLab model was created in response to the realisation that adult visitors within family groups were not partaking in learning experiences during their visit. The research teams sought to educate the public around their research in child development regardless of participation in the experiment. Typically, this occurred through short discussions between museum patrons (typically parents or caregivers) and another researcher who was not actively engaged in the experiment, and often involved an explanatory pamphlet. Finally, but importantly, the LivingLab sought to use the connections between the researcher team and museum staff to enhance mutual professional development. They did this in multiple ways including lunch and learn meetings where researchers presented their findings to the museum team and also by having museum staff participate in the experiments themselves and provide feedback on clarity of the information offered. Communication with the public is often a challenge for myriad reasons (Fischhoff, 2013[11]) and this feedback can help improve future dialogue with the public. Longstanding relationships between several universities in Boston and the Museum of Science in Boston are at the core of the LivingLab, but the group has expanded through a model where the LivingLab provides a small project stipend and training to museum research partners. One additional piece that has emerged from the LivingLab is the availability of research toys (Hadani and Walker, 2015[12]). Even a large research team cannot be on the floor of the museum interacting during all open hours. To address this gap, research toys that capture the essence of the experiment have been created so they can be left behind at the museum for patrons to engage. These research toys come with short explanations of the experimental goal, how to use the props provided and the typical results observed.

An alternative, albeit dramatic, way around research team availability is to site a research lab in a science centre or museum. A former researcher participating in the LivingLab at the Museum of Science in Boston approached the local science centre as he began his faculty position at the University of British Columbia in Canada. Science World in Victoria was undergoing a large-scale capital campaign and renovation. The success of the LivingLab model incentivised the group to try something that would bring even more research to the science centre – they literally built a research lab at Science World ( This model certainly demands more resources, but has advantages. For example, some research, including many studies of cognition, demands quiet concentration and does not work well on the museum floor. The waiting area of the lab has two large monitors that show what is occurring in each of the two (quiet) research rooms, and in addition, the museum-facing wall of the waiting area is glass, so other Science World patrons can also observe the research from outside. Research on the malleability of implicit associations across development (Gonzalez, Dunlop and Baron, 2017[13]) is one example of the work conducted at the Lab in Science World. It is worth noting that this study involved approximately 1 200 participants – a feat that would be difficult to accomplish at a university lab.

Another variant of the LivingLab model engaged participants of all ages in an experiment measuring static balance and manual reaction time at the Fleet Science Center in San Diego (Suarez et al., 2015[14]). This LivingLab-supported project also included a blend of research and outreach, but was different in that the goal was to stimulate participant inquiry around their own balance and reaction time scores and to interpret these with respect to population data. The study used new technologies to collect balance and reaction time data and receive immediate results. Children commonly asked questions regarding the u-shape of the data and the discussion focused on a relative lack of balance control for young children and the elderly. However, children also inquired about the variability of scores at a given age and this prompted discussion on how some individuals of the same age might have different scores because of different training or exercise routines. The goal of the data collection was to develop a normative database for balance and reaction time in typical individuals that could be used for balance intervention studies of individuals with developmental disorders. That goal was shared with whomever asked, however, in the science centre, researchers sought to promote inquiry and highlight balance as a foundational motor skill. The researchers invited participants to ask questions and test their hypothesis. For example, a researcher would ask the patron, “What is your guess: is your balance better with your eyes open or with your eyes closed?”. Due to the simple and quick task using our balance-measuring device (BTrackS Balance Plate, Balance Tracking Systems, Inc., San Diego, CA), the participants made their guess and were allowed to test their hypothesis, giving them the opportunity to engage some aspects of the scientific method. Through the BTrackS interface, patrons viewed a clear representation of the amount of sway in each trial and condition. Additionally, participants were invited to practice a favourite movement activity (for example, soccer, dance or skateboarding) while on the balance board, allowing them to view how their balance changed with different types of movement. The FitLight Trainer System (FitLights, Corp., Aurora, Ontario) was used to measure reaction time and it also reported average reaction time immediately. These in real-time results allowed for our tasks to quickly escalate into a competition among family members or groups of friends in terms of minimising sway in the balance task and maximising speed in the reaction time. These tasks allowed museum patrons of all ages to actively engage in the experiment in a way that was both fun and supported STEM inquiry.

Content-related programming around a specific exhibit can create an opportunity to bring scientists to public venues. For example, the GameMasters exhibit (ACMI, 2015[15]) at the Fleet Science Center created the opportunity to connect with local researchers who use video games in their work. Through a series of lectures and demonstrations researchers shared diverse uses of video games, including surgical training. Chukoskie and colleagues (Chukoskie, Westerfield and Townsend, 2018[16]) participated in multiple presentations for different audiences to share games designed to train attention and focus, as well as other games for reducing anxiety. As part of the Fleet’s “Genius in the House” events, winners of two recent San Diego Hackathons demonstrated their innovative ideas and game-based solutions for museum patrons alongside the GameMasters exhibitions. Museum patrons were invited to try out these creations and ask questions. This exchange provides another example of the unique opportunities that can emerge from RPPs.

STEM learning outside the science centre

The Fleet Science Center has created and implemented 52 Weeks of Science, providing residents of two local neighbourhoods the opportunity to participate in free, hands-on STEM activities every week. 52 Weeks of Science is unique in that it is bringing science literally into the neighbourhoods where learners live. The success of this project requires the involvement of many different individuals, leading to the formation of Neighbourhood Leadership Groups, which connects STEM advocates, school district representatives, higher education institutions, STEM industries, libraries, parent groups and more. These Neighbourhood Leadership Groups allow for a network of STEM influencers to communicate, possibly leading to more future collaborations benefitting the community. The creation of this innovative outreach programme has stimulated interest from university partners who are interested in studying different aspects of the programme and helping to seek funding for 52 weeks ongoing support and expansion into other low-resourced neighbourhoods in San Diego County. A recent application of social network analysis (Daly, 2012[17]) of STEM learning resources in San Diego County is providing a useful perspective for next steps with the 52 Weeks of Science programme.

One group participating in 52 Weeks of Science is also highlighted in the chapter “Music, cognition and education” (Chapter 15, by Khalil et al.), as a physics programme called “Listening to Waves”. This programme engages students in physics concepts through music and making instruments. Opportunities such as this are an effective way to introduce children to STEM concepts through interests they already have.

Although our primary focus is in children, RPPs in informal STEM learning environments are ideally situated to promote and study lifelong learning. Kagawa, Japan was involved in the 1973 OECD Educating Cities initiative and has prioritised lifelong learning by implementing policies and city projects at different municipal levels (Choi and Min, 2008[18]; Yang and Yorozu, 2015[19]). Japan has community centres, known as “Kominkan”, that serve as hubs for citizens of all ages to partake in activities that cover an array of concepts, including personal development and social learning. Kominkan are often partnered with schools and museums (MEXT, 2008[20]) to facilitate these meetings. Additionally, Japan has established 150 Citizens’ universities, which allow the public to take lectures and courses from a range of subjects (Yang and Yorozu, 2015[19])

Feedback loops in research-practice partnerships

As mentioned above, research on the efficacy of RPPs, especially in STEM ILEs, is still in its infancy. Evaluation of the outcome of any particular RPP’s implementation ought to be separately considered from the value that the partnerships themselves may provide as a crucible for future innovation. Another layer of these partnerships focuses on what cognitive science research can bring to our understanding of engagement for better interactive design for both exhibits and demonstrations. Engagement is a construct that encompasses a number of cognitive parameters including focused attention, affect and motivation (Attfield et al., 2011[21]). It is typically assessed through survey and interview tools (O’Brien and Toms, 2010[22]). Moreover, to obtain a fingerprint of the experience during the experience using a survey, we must take the visitor away from the interactive, even if only momentarily, thus breaking the very engagement we hope to cultivate and assess.

A recent review highlights the need for more objective and physiologically based methods of assessing engagement, especially in technology-mediated learning environments (Henrie, Halverson and Graham, 2015[23]). Using advances in eye tracking, we can very quickly quantify the proportion of time spent “off task” (Miller, 2015[24]) and from those instances, determine where the user was looking before switching to off task behaviour. By aggregating such events across visitors, we will build a picture of what aspects of the exhibit interaction might be leading a visitor off task, and also how individuals with different levels of expertise are engaging with the content (Stofer and Che, 2014[25]). These ideas for the real-world study of engagement can incentivise researchers who may not otherwise have engaged RPPs to reconsider.

What is needed to encourage more research-practice partnerships?

Although existing literature suggests positive outcomes through RPPs (Coburn, Penuel and Geil, 2013[7]; Coburn and Penuel, 2016[8]) few collaborations between universities, local schools and community organisations have been explicitly studied for efficacy of different aspects of the RPPs. There are multiple barriers to improved participation. One struggle RPPs face is structural. Academic researchers are simply not rewarded for this type of partnership unless it results in a fast publication. These partnerships need time and investment to develop and do not typically lend themselves to fast publication. Academic review structures would do well to consider both the time investment as well as potential community investment from an RPP in evaluating an academic file. Another struggle RPPs face is the multifaceted challenge of effective scientific communication (Fischhoff, 2013[11]). When communicating their research to the public, researchers often forget their audience and use jargon that is unfamiliar to the public, and also fail to recognise that the conceptual framework of the patron will likely not be the same as the scientist, so some scaffolding must occur to build understanding. The LivingLab model prioritises mutual professional development partly for this reason. Museum educators facilitate discussions with researchers on clear communication and interaction with visitors. In turn, researchers can share their content expertise with the staff. Although RPPs can address this challenge in part, improving public-directed communications is part of a much larger effort. As an example, The Portal to the Public (Storksdieck, Stylinski and Canzoneri, 2017[26]) is an NSF-funded effort to improve communication through science centres.

For a successful RPP, all parties must find value and demonstrate willingness to work towards a common goal. Universities can be incentivised through the research conducted via the RPPs. RPPs provide faculty the option to collect useful data from a diverse range of participants, rather than be restricted to young adult subjects typically available at a university – and the volume of the participants can be quite large. However, it is not just the resulting data that are appealing. Faculty trainees will gain unique research experiences as they are invited to consider and directly address societal needs in education as part of the blended research-outreach experience (Coburn and Penuel, 2016[8]).

For community organisations, alignment with a particular research programme can create a strong desire to partner with certain groups within local colleges or universities. STEM ILEs, such as museums, frequently have strong connections to local K-12 schools through their own programming and field-trips, however, the connections with higher education institutions are weaker. Typically, one of the goals of STEM ILEs are to provide a fertile environment for cultivating the next generation of STEM leaders. ILEs should view local colleges and universities as a tool to leverage their impact on this next generation. ILEs can fill the role of mediator by exposing children to higher education options and possibly future field interests.

Policy implications

This chapter discussed the power of RPPs in ILEs to stimulate STEM learning in a way that builds sociocultural networks and promotes research to examine efficacy. The network analysis engaged by 52 Weeks suggests an intriguing step forward. Perhaps we ought not to categorise RPPs that work within versus outside of standard school environments, but instead use RPPs and the networks that emerge from them to knit together opportunities that connect children’s learning both in and out of school environments. This holistic approach prioritises learning, not where it happens. Additionally, to stimulate more involvement from university partners, academic review policies will need to reconsider the societal value of RPPs and the time that is needed to nurture such partnerships. RPPs can play a role in improving science communication in our communities more broadly. By increasing the frequency of interaction between STEM experts and the community, we increase opportunities for discussion and learning. Finally, but importantly, the lifelong learning approach should not be seen as diverting resources away from young learners, but instead creating a community that surrounds all children with the excitement of STEM learning opportunities.


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