Informal & Formal STEM Education

In this month's Spotlight, listen to Dr. Rabiah Mayas and Dennis Schatz discuss the benefits and critical elements of programs that connect formal STEM education to the teaching and learning that happens in homes, communities, and informal institutions. They also consider the opportunities for the field, especially in the context of social justice movements and the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition, we highlight five DRK-12 projects that bridge formal and informal settings within the STEM teaching and learning ecosystem.

In this Spotlight...

Connecting Formal and Informal STEM Learning: A Conversation with Dr. Rabiah Mayas & Dennis Schatz

Featured Projects

An Integrated Approach to Early Elementary Earth and Space Science


PI: Linda Shore | Co-PI: Kristin Bass
Target Audience: K-3 students and teachers
STEM Disciplines: Earth & Space Science

Project PLANET explored how integrating a storybook into classroom investigations of natural phenomena leads to 1st and 3rd grade students development of science practices. To accompany the in-class investigations, interactive planetarium experiences were designed to reinforce learners’ conceptual understanding and ability to recognize patterns and make predictions. The planetarium experiences incorporated themes and imagery from the storybooks, providing continuity for the learners.  In both grades, the storybook characters encountered something surprising (changing shadow length and direction over the course of a day; the change of Moon phase and position in the morning sky over the course of a week) and then sought to better understand the phenomenon through engaging in the practices of science. We discovered the use of the storybook provided an important anchor for the students, as they explored a natural phenomena in much the same way as did the characters in the story.

Partners: The project involves a research-practice collaboration between the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, Rockman & Associates, the Lawrence Hall of Science at the University of California, Berkeley, and West Chester University.

Target Outcomes: 

  • Opportunities for students to engage in science practices (e.g., noticing, recognizing change, making predictions, and constructing explanations), studied with video-recorded observations.
  • Connections between curriculum components (i.e., the science-focused narrative, hands-on activities, and closely aligned planetarium experience) across learning contexts, again studied with video-recorded observations.
  • Early elementary children’s ability to notice, recognize change, and make predictions about natural phenomena before and after engaging in the instructional sequence, as measured by surveys.

Findings: Our results suggest that a lesson sequence that coherently combines a science-focused storybook narrative with supporting hands-on activities and an interactive planetarium experience encourages students to explore natural phenomena through different learning environments. We also found that teachers and planetarium instructors initiated most of the connections made between parts of the sequence. Students rarely verbalized their own independent connections between the curriculum components. One instance where students made their own connections was during the 3rd grade Moon phase card sorting activity when students directly referred to the planetarium experience to justify why they sequenced their cards the way they did. We also found that when children carried out activities later in a lesson sequence, they often referred to and used the knowledge they gained from earlier activities. 

Teachers in both grades incorporated a second reading into the learning sequence, asking students to recall and articulate connections between phenomena in the books and what they themselves had experienced doing in the activities. Additional readings appeared to have played an important role in helping children make important connections. For example, third grade students noticed and described Moon phase patterns they had not originally recognized during their first reading; on their second reading, first grade students were able to point out the location of the Sun, Moonbear (the main character) and his shadow in the storybook and describe the length of Bear’s shadow. These activities all successfully prepared students to make predictions about Moon phases and shadows in the planetarium.

Key Challenge: Several challenges arose during the course of the project. While we made an effort to incorporate culturally relevant education practices into the sequences, results were mixed. While some students made connections of the phenomena to their personal lives, explicit connections to their culture or community were generally absent. The weather made it challenging to make systematic observations, particularly for lunar phases. While the planetarium can simulate patterns, students were unable to observe the pattern on their own. How this affected their overall understanding is an open question.

Products: Interactive Poster (AERA 2020) | Chasing Shadows and Eating the Moon (STEM for All Video Showcase)

LabVenture - Revealing Systemic Impacts of a 12-Year Statewide Science Field Trip Program


PI: Leigh Peake | Co-PIs: James Hammerman, Martin Storksdieck, Kelly Riedinger
Target Audience: Middle grades; Informal and formal educators, particularly in Maine; Education and learning researchers with focus on informal STEM learning and learning ecosystems; Secondarily schools, families, communities
STEM Disciplines: Life Science, Ecology, Data Literacy, Marine Science

This research in service to practice project examines the systemic impacts of a longstanding statewide field trip program called LabVenture. This GMRI program has hosted (on average) 70% of Maine’s 5th/6th grade cohort annually in data-rich, hands-on explorations of ecosystem change. With 88% of eligible schools participating at least once since 2005, and 23% attending ten years or more, investigators view the program as an opportunity to leverage a learning ecosystem framework to help reveal long-term impacts the program may have had at the student, teacher, school, and community levels. In particular, the program focuses on the connections between one field trip program, LabVenture, and classrooms across Maine in order to investigate those connections at a larger scale. The project also attempts to identify markers of the experience at the community level, using it to illuminate the nature and extent of the learning ecosystem more generally.

Partners: Gulf of Maine Research Institute (GMRI); STEM Research Center, Oregon State University; STEM Education Evaluation Center, TERC

Target Outcomes: The focus lies on the learning ecosystem as a whole, but indicators for change include memory of the program and basic understanding of life science and ecology topics highlighted in the program for participants (alumni of the program), appreciation for out-of-school learning in the community, higher usage of field trips generally, and degree of integration with classroom instruction including enriching instructional strategies by teachers and school administrators.

Initial Findings: Unlike many informal institutions, the nature of the LabVenture program allows GMRI to maintain fairly precise records of who attended on what day and from what places around Maine. This allowed us to create a Participation Model early on to understand which were communities where schools had significant exposure to the program over time. Our starting premise was that these communities – where every year caregivers see the LabVenture bus roll into the parking lot, where every year the 5th/6th grade educators plan and arrange the trip – would be the most likely places to begin to detect community-level signals. 

One emerging signal based on both the Participation Model and subsequent rounds of initial interviews is the essential role of teacher “champions” in schools that have long-term, consistent attendance. These teacher champions (intentionally or unintentionally) made the field trip a tradition in the school, passed down from older students to younger, from older siblings to younger. They also typically integrated the field trip to GMRI into the classroom experience and scheduled it to fall at a particular time each year to coincide with planned instruction. This early finding had two follow-on impacts for the project: 

  • It has led investigators to ask questions regarding community-level impacts from the effort and attitude of those teacher champions – for example, is there generally a stronger appreciation of out-of-school learning in these communities? 
  • It led to a shift in our strategy on how to address a substantial recruitment challenge in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic; the team shifted resources to engage teachers as Community Engagement Champions in their regions – essentially, to be the face of the project in ways investigators no longer could because of restrictions on travel and gatherings. 

The project is in the midst of restarting community outreach efforts and is engaged in a more detailed analysis of the Participation Model to expand from some of these preliminary findings.

Key Challenge & Opportunity: 

Challenge: Related to the COVID-related methodology changes described above, the project was just ramping up community-level recruitment when the pandemic hit. The original plan was to leverage GMRI’s substantial network among schools as an entrée into communities. While the network is proving resilient in the end, schools were so absorbed in responding to current events, and our approach so constrained by IRB and human subject protections, that we faced months without planned data collection and are only now recovering.

Opportunity: An early challenge on the project was keeping our eyes on systemic and community-level impacts rather than shifting into an evaluative frame (impact at the level of the individual student). We’ve now embraced a paired approach, collecting data related to both students’ short- and long-term memories of the experience as well as evidence of the ripples of this repeated 5th/6th grade tradition into the community.

Products: Poster (2019 AISL PI Meeting)

Networking Urban Resources with Teachers and University to enRich Early Childhood Science (NURTURES) Phase II: Expansion and Evaluation

Nurtures Logo

PI: Charlene CzerniakCo-PI: Susanna Hapgood, Joan Kaderavek, Scott Molitor
Target Audience: PreK-3 teachers, children, and parents/caregivers
STEM Disciplines: Life, Physical, and Earth/Space Science

The University of Toledo NURTURES project aims to transform early childhood science teaching based upon NGSS standards to measurably increase student science, literacy, and math achievement. The program includes two primary components: (a) teacher PD (composed of a two-week Summer Institute (SI) for PreK-3 teachers and academic year PD including monthly professional learning community (PLC) meetings and one-on-one coaching), and (b) family engagement in scientific inquiry (composed of family science activity take- home packs and family science events hosted after school or in the community). With a design based on the Harvard Complementary Learning Model (Harvard Family Research Project, 2019), the program aligns educational resources to provide comprehensive programming addressing the learning needs of children and emphasizing family engagement in education.

Partners: We work with a variety of local organizations including The Toledo Zoo, Toledo Lucas County Metropark, Imagination Station, and Toledo Lucas County Library.

Target Outcomes: Table of Objectives, Outcomes, Impact Measures, and Data Collection Plans

Findings: With the current NSF DRK-12 grant (Award #1721059), we explored the relative impact of teacher PD versus teacher PD plus parent involvement on student gains. We used a RCT research design to compare student outcomes among three groups: PD + family engagement group, PD-only group, and a control group. This research demonstrated that the NURTURES intervention statistically impacted student learning over the control group without intervention (Hedges’ g effect size of 0.34; a level considered substantively important by WWC). Early analyses suggested higher test scores for children in the family engagement condition, but COVID-19 disrupted our ability to collect sufficient data for analyses this past spring.

Key Challenge: The face-to-face aspects of our project have reached over 5,000 students from predominately urban settings. However, COVID-19 school closures highlighted the disparity among some student populations resulting in lower participation rates in family engagement activities when they were placed online.

Remote Learning: During the COVID-19 school closures, we adapted program delivery through electronic or no-contact methods. Adaptions we implemented include:

  • Transitioning family engagement materials from physical materials (packs, paper, supplies) to electronic materials (PDF, website, video, simulations) with adaptions for use with common household items.
  • Moving family engagement events from a school gathering model to an online model featuring prepared activity videos for families with a culminating live online event (e.g., using Webex) for teachers and families to share their experiences and promote discourse.
  • Changing elements of research that involved in-person classroom testing to online test delivery or mailing of test materials.

In addition to these adaptations, several elements of the NURTURES program were already designed for online delivery. Teacher professional learning community (PLC) and coaching components of the program are facilitated entirely online through secure technical infrastructure (Cisco Webex and Basecamp project management applications). Our summer institutes were not impacted by the pandemic, but the success of the PLCs and coaching suggest that components of the summer institute could be modified for online learning. Future research could study modifications for teacher professional development. Our experience with online family components was mixed. For families that participated, they were highly engaged. However, reaching families online in an urban setting was found to be challenging and only a few numbers of families were reached during the COVID-19 shutdowns. Future research needs to examine ways to more effectively engage families online.

Products: Project Website (featuring family engagement videos)


  • Family Packs. Twenty Family Science Packs (FSP) for 5 different grade levels (PreK, Kindergarten, 1st, 2nd, and 3rd) are sent home quarterly by teachers to make home-school connections in science and encourage family science inquiry and discourse. Each FSP is a zippered canvas bag containing inquiry activities aligned with the SEPs, DCIs, and CCs in the Framework (NRC, 2012) as well as various early learning standards (e.g., NAEYC, 2016; ODE, 2012), which build upon one another gradually increasing in level of complexity thereby allowing all levels of learners to progress through them at their own pace. Each FSP is self-guided and includes a newsletter with the directions, necessary materials, and a Journal Sheet for children to record data or visually represent understanding.
  • Community Events. Community events (two per year minimum hosted by the school) give families opportunities to engage in informal science activities after school (e.g., at parent science nights) or in the community (e.g., a park, zoo, public library, farm). A wide range of activities (e.g., engineering challenges, simulations, observations, demonstrations) are geared for families of young children and are designed to foster adult-child interaction around a variety of science topics. Each activity is scaffolded by an “event guide” for parents/caregivers to facilitate their child’s experience, and roles are given to adults and children (e.g., adult “navigators” and child “science investigators”). The “Event Guides” are designed to stand alone and include step-by-step directions for adults (suggestions for language, questions, and spaces to record children’s responses). Additional information for engaging children is on the back.


  • Hapgood, S., Michaelson, K. M., Kaderavek, J.N., Paprzycki, P., Czerniak, C. M. & Molitor, S. (under review). Longitudinal impact of a Framework-aligned initiative on early literacy and mathematics growth curves. Manuscript submitted for publication in Journal of Research in Science Teaching.
  • Kaderavek, J. N., Paprzycki, P., Czerniak, C. M., Hapgood, S., Mentzer, G., Molitor, S. & Mendenhall, R. (2020) Longitudinal impact of early childhood science instruction on 5th grade science achievement. International Journal of Science Education.
  • Kaderavek, J.N., North, T., Rotshtein, R., Dao, H., Liber, N., Milewski, G., Molitor, S.C. and Czerniak, C.M. (2015). SCIIENCE: the creation and pilot implementation of an NGSS-based instrument to evaluate early childhood science teaching. Studies in Educational Evaluation, 45, 27-36.
  • Reinhart, M., Bloomquist, D., Gilbert, A., Strickler-Eppard, L., Czerniak, C., Kaderavek, J. & Molitor, S. (2016). Taking science home: Connecting schools and families through early childhood science activity packs. School Science and Mathematics, 116, 3-16.
  • Tuttle, N., Stanley, W. and Bieniek, T. (2016). Engineering Motion: Building Derby Cars in K-2 Classrooms. Science and Children, January, 46-53.
  • Tuttle, N., Kaderavek, J. N., Molitor, S., Czerniak, C. M., Johnson-Whitt, E., Bloomquist, D., Namatovu, W., and Wilson, G. (2016). Investigating the impact of NGSS-aligned professional development on PK-3 teachers’ science content knowledge and pedagogy. Journal of Science Teacher Education, 27, 717-745.
  • Paprzycki, P., Tuttle, N. Czerniak, C. M., Molitor, S., Kaderavek, J., and Mendenhall, R. (2017). The impact of a Framework-aligned science professional development program on literacy and mathematics achievement of K-3 students. Journal of Research in Science Teaching. DOI: 10.1002/tea.21400.
  • Tuttle, N. Mentzer, G.A., Strickler-Eppard, L., Hapgood, S., Bloomquist, D. Molitor, S. Kaderavek, J., and Czerniak, C.M. (2017). Exploring how families do science together: Adult-child interactions at community science events. School Science and Mathematics, 117, 175-182.
  • Gilbert, A., Czerniak, C. & Kaderavek, J. (Submitted June 2017). Elementary science teachers' experiences with synchronous online, asynchronous online and face-to-face coaching. Journal of Science Teacher Education.
  • Strickler-Eppard, L., Czerniak, C. M., & Kaderavek, J. (2019). Families’ Capacity to Engage in Science Inquiry at Home Through Structured Activities. Early Childhood Education Journal, 1-12.

Theses and Dissertations:

  • Bloomquist, D.L. (2016). The Effects of Coaching Using a Reflective Framework on Early Childhood Science Teachers’ Depth of Reflection and Change in Practice. The University of Toledo, Toledo, OH.
  • Gilbert, A.M. (2016). The Nature of Elementary Science Teachers’ Experiences with Synchronous Online, Asynchronous Online and Face-to-Face Coaching. The University of Toledo, Toledo, OH. 
  • Reinhart, M. A. (2019). A Longitudinal Study of an Urban Kindergarten Teacher’s Instructional Strategies for and Perceptions of Young Children’s STEM Inquiry. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Toledo, Toledo, OH.
  • Reinhart, M.L. (2012). Inquiry-Based Science Activities in Early Childhood: The Use of Take-Home Family Packs to Support Meaningful Oral Discourse. The University of Toledo, Toledo, OH.
  • Strickler-Eppard, L.J. (2016). A Detailed Analysis of Family Utilization of Science Activity Packs. The University of Toledo. Toledo, Ohio.

Moving Next Generation Science Standards into Practice: A Middle School Ecology Unit and Teacher Professional Development Model

Disruptions Cover

PI: Karen HammernessCo-PIs: Barbara NagleSuzanne Wilson
Target Audience: The curriculum is intended for grade 6-8 students. The target audience for the curriculum is middle school science teachers and the district leaders and professional learning specialists who work with these teachers. The curriculum has been field tested for three consecutive years with New York City middle school science teachers, who regularly gave feedback on the curriculum based on their experiences teaching it. The project also focused upon developing professional development experiences for middle school teachers, to help them learn about NGSS, learn about the content of the curriculum, and to prepare to teach the curriculum.
STEM Disciplines: Life and Earth Science

What does an NGSS-aligned unit look like for middle school? How can a team of museum and university curriculum developers and researchers collaborate to take advantage of their resources to develop curricular materials for teachers to use in public schools, as well as to help teachers develop their capacities to teach in ways that are consistent with the vision of the NGSS framework? Our project is a collaboration across three institutions to design, pilot, and field-test a middle school ecology unit and a professional development model that aligned with a bundle of middle school ecology Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) performance expectations and Common Core State Standards. Our project not only provides an NGSS-designed model unit to be used in classrooms and for teacher professional development, but also a model of curriculum developers working closely with teachers and researchers and scientists to design and field test these materials and support teachers with professional learning experiences to support the vision of the K-12 Science Framework.

Partners: The project is a partnership between the American Museum of Natural History, Lawrence Hall of Science/University of California-Berkeley, and the University of Connecticut.

Target Outcomes: The project’s main outcome was to design and pilot test the curriculum, and to develop a professional development experience for teachers. Related to that effort, we regularly gathered data from field test teachers on the appropriateness for middle school science learners as well as potential modifications to the curriculum in order to help support their students’ learning. We also gathered data on the usefulness of the professional development experience for teacher learning. This included what helped teachers rehearse and practice key teaching strategies to better assist them in implementing the curriculum. A related component of our work focused specifically upon student and teacher assessments: we gathered student work samples and assessments from all teachers, and analyzed sets of these materials to help score and identify exemplars. We also surveyed assessment items that would help us develop items to measure teachers’ content knowledge and pedagogical content knowledge, and pilot tested these measures with a small group of participating teachers.

Findings: This project has deepened knowledge about how to design curricula that support the three-dimensional learning envisioned in the NGSS. The curriculum team developed approaches to scaffolding student learning experiences to promote growth in all three dimensions aligned to the targeted Performance Expectations. These experiences helped to prepare students to engage in sensemaking around concepts and issues in ecology.  The curriculum and design approach has been shared with a wide practitioner and researcher audience through professional meetings.

The project has also advanced knowledge of professional development design for teacher learning and of the influence of professional development on teachers and students. Throughout the project, the research team deepened their understanding of 1) the specialized knowledge needed by facilitators of professional development and 2) how to provide teachers with opportunities to engage in and reflect on NGSS-aligned teaching practices. While initially focused upon ensuring that teachers experience the curriculum from a student perspective, we found that shifts in teaching required extensive opportunities for teacher practice. We needed more opportunities for teachers to learn about, rehearse, and practice relevant teaching strategies. We incorporated a focus on talk moves and strategies for facilitating student-to-student talk. Initial analysis of a subset of student assessments offered evidence that students improved their competency with constructing explanations and arguing from evidence. In addition, the project team learned the importance of supporting teachers to practice eliciting and building on students’ ideas, to integrate all three dimensions, and to allow ample time for student reflection and sensemaking.

Finally, the project has contributed to our understanding of teacher and student assessment. This project yielded instructional materials and teaching resources aligned with NGSS, and instruments to help researchers and educators track the effects of PD on science teaching and learning. Although initially not part of the project design, the project team saw an opportunity to extend the work of assessment and was awarded supplemental funding to score full sets of assessments from the unit from >900 students to gather reliability and validity data. For the teacher assessment, we gathered candidate assessment items from the broad array of assessments being used nationwide in research and development projects and created a publicly-available inventory of such items. We completed a crosswalk between NGSS and the identified items, and pilot tested items designed to assess both teacher content knowledge and pedagogical content knowledge. Our experience is using a responsible and principled, evidence-centered approach to developing assessments with clear validity claims that can serve as a blueprint for future assessment development efforts. Because our approach centers responsibility as a guiding principle, the process requires that assessment development and implementation cannot be separate from the work of professional learning that happens both in formal professional development and teachers’ classrooms. 

Key Challenge: The long-term relationships between our partner institutions, as well as our partnerships across New York City were critical for developing the work and for engaging in this kind of large, complex and ambitious project. Our cross-institutional collaboration had been established in a prior NSF-funded project; our joint work was greatly enhanced by an established set of practices for working across these institutions.

For example, the AMNH has a long-standing relationship with the NYC public schools through the Urban Advantage partnership and other programs for teachers, youth and children. Schools and teachers were integral to the research and development that was undertaken in this project. School leadership welcomed us to observe in participants’ classrooms, collect student assessments, and interview teachers about their experiences. Our project could be even more directly responsive to the needs of schools and teachers during the critical roll-out period of the New York Science Learning Standards. We see tremendous potential in continuing these kinds of ambitious, cross-institutional research projects to leverage partnerships across academic institutions, informal institutions, and public school systems as partners.

Products: The final edition of the Disruptions unit, along with the teachers guide, teacher support materials and assessment materials, is available at:

An earlier, field tested version of the curriculum has been available through Achieve, since October 2017. Since posting, the unit has been viewed over 37,000 times and has been downloaded over 14,000 times.

Another product of this work is a full set of student exemplars which have been scored, annotated, and compiled into a teacher support document. Teachers found the exemplars and hands-on experience analyzing them to be among the activities that they rated highest in terms of impact on their classroom practice. We anticipate that teachers will find the student examples helpful in anticipating the range of student performances one might expect, and productive ways in which to use student thinking on assessments to guide instruction.

The Teaching Channel developed an online course that used Chapter 1 of the Disruptions unit as the focus of instruction. This course supports educators connecting their learning of the NGSS with instructional materials and practice. The course includes active facilitation and coaching, video examples of a real teacher implementing Chapter 1 of Disruptions in Ecosystems, and opportunities to engage in reflective discourse on their practice.

AMNH’s suite of online courses for educators, called Seminars in Science, developed an online course that used Chapter 4 of the Disruptions unit as the focus of instruction. This course was intended to support educators in enacting NGSS-aligned teaching practices.

Finally, we have created a publicly-available inventory of items for assessing teachers’ knowledge of content and pedagogical content knowledge. We made this work public because schools face unprecedented challenges in meeting the NGSS's ambitious goals, as do the rapidly developing assessments that can aid teachers in this process. A database of items that those working to meet these challenges can use is a further benefit of this work. Though the research team did not use all items in the database, we coded all items against the NGSS; thus, those working to target NGSS Performance Expectations other than the ones this grant targeted may be able to build off of our learning. In this way, we have helped contribute valuable  knowledge to the science education community.

Some of the most recent conference papers from the project include:

  • Binding, M. (2019, April). Argumentation in context to enhance students’ three-dimensional learning. Session presented at the annual meeting of the National Science Teachers Association Conference, St. Louis, MO.
  • MacPherson, A. (2018, March). NGSS-designed assessments for a middle school ecosystems unit. A workshop presented at the annual meeting of the National Science Teachers Association, Atlanta, GA.
  • Kastel, D. & MacPherson, A.  (2017, April).  A professional development model to support teachers’ implementation of an NGSS-designed middle school ecosystems unit.  Paper presented at the annual meeting of the National Association of Research in Science Teaching (NARST), San Antonio, TX.
  • Kastel, D., MacPherson, A. & Binding, M.  (2018, March).  NGSS@NSTA forum session: Disruptions in ecosystems: An NGSS-designed middle school unit and professional development model. Session presented at the annual meeting of the National Science Teachers Association Conference, Atlanta, GA.
  • Lyu, X. & MacPherson, A. (2020, Apr 17 - 21) Students' Use of Science Concepts in Generating Scientific Explanations [Roundtable Session]. AERA Annual Meeting San Francisco, CA (Conference Canceled)
  • MacPherson, A.  (2017, April). Developing assessments for a NGSS-designed ecosystems unit. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the National Association of Research in Science Teaching (NARST), San Antonio, TX.
  • MacPherson, A. (2017). Disruptions in ecosystems: NGSS-designed curriculum unit and assessments for middle school students.  Presentation at the annual meeting of the Ecological Society of America (ESA), Portland, OR.

Schoolyard Science Investigations by Teachers, Extension Volunteers and Students (Schoolyard SITES)

Schoolyard SITES

PI: Lara Gengarelly | Co-PIs: Malin Clyde, Erik Froburg, Sameer Honwad
Grades: Grade 2-5 elementary teachers and University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension science volunteers
STEM Disciplines: Life and Earth Science

The Schoolyard SITES program partners elementary teachers with University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension science volunteers to bring locally-relevant citizen science projects to elementary students and to increase teachers’ self-efficacy teaching science. With support from the informal volunteer educators, teachers develop science investigations that incorporate student learning goals aligned with the Next Generation Science Standards and involve existing citizen science projects. Each teacher-volunteer team designs and teaches a science project that is relevant to the school district’s curriculum and school site. Schoolyard SITES students engage in real-world, problem-based learning and investigate their schoolyard using the scientific process, and they contribute valuable scientific data to a variety of existing citizen science initiatives, ranging from Project FeederWatch to local maple sap monitoring.

Partners: The key Schoolyard SITES partners are several New Hampshire school districts (e.g., Manchester, Nashua, Oyster River, Portsmouth, Rochester) and University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension science-based volunteer organizations such as NH Master Gardeners, Natural Resource Stewards, and STEM Docents (see Each of these partners support the recruitment of Schoolyard SITES participants.

Initial Findings: Schoolyard SITES is a University of New Hampshire research study that investigates a new professional development model for elementary school teachers. The program partners 2nd-5th grade teachers with Cooperative Extension science volunteers to create a community-based professional development partnership that improves educators’ use of locally-relevant, citizen science projects in the classroom. The model builds on the premise that both groups have expertise that can be shared and collaboratively developed.

According to initial research results, elementary teachers benefit from the partnership with informal volunteer educators. Specifically, teachers demonstrate gains in self-efficacy teaching science plus each curriculum project engages students with several science practices and includes complementary elements of a citizen science project. Specifically, analyzing and interpreting data was one of the top NGSS science practices teachers gained confidence in teaching along with students’ carrying out investigations, asking scientific questions, and designing and using models.

Key Challenge: While citizen science projects are an opportunity for students to work with data, one of the challenges for the teacher-volunteer teams has been determining how to incorporate existing citizen science initiatives to support their main science learning goals. As a response to this challenge, we created a project guide for teacher-volunteer teams to use when designing the Schoolyard SITES projects. The guide helps the teams intentionally frame the classroom projects based on learning goals and NGSS science practices (i.e., data analysis and interpretation) as well as identify appropriate connections to existing citizen science programs (e.g., Project FeederWatch).

Products: Project Website | Video (STEM for All Video Showcase)


Additional Projects

In addition to those featured above, the following projects provide a sample of DRK-12 work examining connections between formal and informal STEM education.

2020 Awards

2019 Awards

2018 Awards

2017 Awards

2015 Awards