September 6, 2023

Scaling up STEM, Equitably

What are the benefits and opportunities of scaling up informal STEM programs with equity at the center? EDC’s Erin Stafford moderates a conversation.

STEM programs in libraries, afterschool programs, and other informal learning settings play an important role in preparing young people for the future. These programs can teach young people how to engage in a democratic society, equip them with needed career skills, and help them see themselves as changemakers in their communities.

When a program shows signs of success, it is natural for program developers and their funders to want to reach an even larger audience. Yet issues of context, power, and equity can pose challenges to scaling. For example, a great program that works in an urban library may not work in an afterschool program three blocks away, let alone in a rural setting in another region of the country. Nationwide, program developers are seeking effective ways to collaborate with new communities to ensure programs meet the specific needs of the youth to be served.

In May, EDC and the National Girls Collaborative Project (NGCP) co-led a conference funded by the National Science Foundation that focused on equitably scaling informal STEM education programs. In this roundtable, EDC’s Erin Stafford discusses the opportunities and challenges of scaling with Tara Cox, NGCP’s assistant director of programs, and two conference participants: Dr. Tiffany Smith, director of research and career support for AISES, and Dr. Darryl Williams, senior vice president of science and education at The Franklin Institute. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

STAFFORD: Just because you have a good program or evidence of success doesn’t mean a program will scale well. What do you see as some of the biggest challenges of scaling up promising programs so they reach more youth?

WILLIAMS: I think the idea of scaling comes from a goal of making something more accessible. What we might not realize, though, is that scaling is not one-size-fits all. I think many attempts to expand a program are scaled with this idea that it’s going to look and feel the same as the original program, regardless of where it goes. Some elements of a program just aren’t scalable that way.

COX: I think the way funding is structured can also be a challenge. Programs can get pushed into scaling for the sake of scaling because that’s what the money is dictating. I think when programs rush into scaling, inequitable practices surface.

SMITH: We always have to think about whether the intent of scaling a program is going to match the community’s needs. And we should ask, is there an opportunity to engage the community from start to finish? Can we co-create? Because I think too often we have seen—particularly within Indigenous communities, but also with marginalized communities in general—a “white savior” approach to STEM programming. And that is definitely not the most effective approach.

WILLIAMS: Typically the funding sets the expectations, right? So if the structure is in place in terms of timeline and expected outcomes, you’ve already set the terms of the agreement. Then it really becomes a matter of dynamics about who is and who is not at the table. All of that has to be taken into consideration when we’re talking about scale. Because if the program is something that we deem as good, then there’s got to be some sort of initiator to move things from point A to point B. And oftentimes that initiator really determines the power dynamics and the power structure.

STAFFORD: One thing you said, Darryl, is, “something that we deem as good.” As a researcher and evaluator, I find myself thinking about the context, under what circumstances, and for what people that program may be “good.” For example, Tara, Darryl, and I worked on a program together that has shown promise in previous iterations. But then as the team from The Franklin Institute and NGCP thought about taking it national, we had to decide what “good” meant beyond the context within which the program was originally developed.

SMITH: What is “good?”

STAFFORD: Exactly!

WILLIAMS: And in that context, at the end of the day, we were still executing a scaling model where the folks that have influence and power were initiating the dynamics in terms of the allotment of resources, the timeline, all of those things. And there wasn’t an opportunity, at least in the design of the program, to bring the communities in to determine scope.

SMITH: With any of these types of scaled programs, we have to be cautious about recreating harm. There’s an article from First Nations scholars Kirkness and Barnhardt that guides a lot of our approaches to how we do programs and research with Indigenous communities. They talked about four R’s. One is relevance to the community. So when we’re integrating any kind of STEM program, it needs to be relevant to that nation’s or community’s needs. Then we have to be reciprocal with how we engage with one another. We need to be responsible with the outcomes and how we’re sharing that back into the community. And then respect is the fourth one. So I think all of this could apply well in how we scale informal STEM programs—from start to finish. If we use the four R’s from the start, I think the outcomes could be so much more successful.

COX: That’s so powerful, Tiffany. As I’ve been thinking about the conference, one of the biggest findings is that even the way that we talk about scale right now is very colonialist. It doesn’t share power. It is a very top-down approach.

WILLIAMS: But at the end of the day, we need resources to scale programs. So how do we influence funders to think differently about what they value? If the apparatus of funding doesn’t shift to allow for what we’re describing, how are we able to do things differently?

COX: Maybe that’s what we’re trying to do with the findings from this conference—to provide more tools to have conversations. So if you’re approached by somebody who wants to scale a program, what are those core questions that you need to ask to ensure that equity has been embedded throughout the program design and dissemination?

STAFFORD: So what do you think it looks like when programs are scaled in an authentic, equitable way?

SMITH: I think you have to look at it over time—longitudinally. You have to look at that collective impact on youth over time. How has the relationship between the program and youth evolved? How is the program still engaging with the community? Those are the questions I’d be asking.

WILLIAMS: You’ve got to be open minded. You can’t go into it with a prescribed way of thinking about the outcomes. You’ve got to recognize that things evolve. You’ve got to be able to embrace that evolution, and even the emerging qualities of operating in informal spaces.

STAFFORD: What should the field be thinking about with regards to scaling these informal STEM programs?

WILLIAMS: At the conference, Dr. Angelicque Tucker-Blackmon used three words that I thought speak very much to what we’re talking about today. Those were trauma, trust, and time. If we’re really going to talk about scaling from a lens of equity, I don’t think you can do it without thinking about the historical trauma of the communities or audience that you’re intending to engage. And the importance of building and sustaining trust. And then time is probably the biggest factor, because scaling equitably will take time.

SMITH: Just to be more specific, the historical trauma continues to repeat itself in different ways in this colonized world. I think it’s important that all of us in this work keep an open mind to learning and hearing from people that have very different experiences.

COX: For me, what comes to mind is this need to be radical. When we are developing and planning proposals, we’re operating within the same systems that perpetuate inequities. As a result, I think we have to challenge assumptions every step of the way. Why are we doing this? Who is demanding it? Where did this program come from? You have to have those hard conversations with yourself and with your team. You have to embed those questions in every step of your process as you scale a program, just to ensure that you are constantly thinking about equity.