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Study looks at science learning participation for youth with learning disabilities

Human Development faculty lead study on informal science learning participation for youth with learning disabilities
NSF-funded project hones in on the intrinsic motivation of science museum visitors

Child at science museumInformal science learning experiences provide powerful opportunities for adolescents to experience and learn science. And more inclusive science learning activities are essential to increasing the participation of youth with learning disabilities engaging in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education and careers. But little is known about the learning experiences of this student population in informal learning environments, such as science centers and museums.

A $980,000 Advancing Informal STEM Learning (AISL) grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) awarded to the University of Rochester's Warner School of Education will allow researchers to team up with the Rochester Museum & Science Center (RMSC) and Museum of Science, Boston (MOS) to study the motivational experiences of science museum visitors with learning disabilities. The three-year research project will generate new insights into the ways in which informal STEM education practitioners can facilitate the inclusion of adolescents with disabilities and design exhibits and programs to be inclusive of all people.

Student at science museumThe project, titled “Intrinsic Motivation in Science Museums: Learning from and Broadening Participation of Visitors with Learning Disabilities,” will be led by principal investigator Samantha Daley, assistant professor of education at the Warner School, and co-principal investigators Gabrielle Rappolt-Schlichtmann, founder, executive director and chief scientist at EdTogether, a non-profit that uses the science of emotion to empower youth with disabilities; and Katie Todd, a senior research and evaluation associate at MOS.

"As a community resource for life-long learning, it is important for museums and science centers to better understand how to meet the unique needs of youth with learning disabilities,” says Calvin Uzelmeier, director of featured content, exhibition support & special projects at RMSC. “The Rochester Museum & Science Center is excited to bring our expertise in exhibit development to this project and work with the University of Rochester and our other partners in order to help our entire field better engage this crucial audience."

Adult and child at science museumThe team’s goal is to broaden participation in informal science learning by focusing on identifying and addressing the needs of diverse youth with learning disabilities in museum exhibits and program design. The research will be conducted in three phases and will use the autonomy and competence components of Self Determination Theory (SDT), a well-constructed theory of human motivation developed four decades ago by University Professors Edward Deci and Richard Ryan, to help lay a framework for explaining the intrinsic motivation of youth with learning disabilities.

“One of the many reasons this study is so important is that it will help outline the ways in which engagement and intrinsic motivation for learning are—and are not—supported for visitors with learning disabilities,” explains Daley. “Equally important, it will help build capacity for informal STEM education practitioners to apply this learning to benefit those with learning disabilities, as well as any museum visitor who may appreciate more support in the context of self-directed learning. We are delighted to partner with both museums on this project, and to collaborate in this inclusive design and advocacy work for people with disabilities.”
Students at science museumThe first phase of the project will be an exploratory study describing the engagement and motivation of adolescents, ages 10 to 17, with learning disabilities when experiencing informal science learning exhibits. In the second phase, the team will explore, develop, and investigate design strategies to improve the intrinsic motivation of youth with learning disabilities. It will involve a pair of experimental studies in which design strategies related to intrinsic motivation are manipulated to inform principles of inclusive design. The third phase will use a co-design process in which researchers and museum practitioners work with high school students with learning disabilities to generate guidelines and case examples to support design priorities for this population.

Students at science museumThe team will focus on recruiting a diverse pool of youth participants by partnering with schools that serve young people with learning disabilities. In Rochester, N.Y., the recruitment partner will be Norman Howard School, an independent special education school that serves students with a range of learning challenges. In Boston, Mass., the recruitment partner will be Landmark School, which enrolls students with dyslexia or other language-based learning disabilities.

People with learning disabilities make up roughly 20 percent of the U.S. population, representing the largest group of individuals with disabilities in the United States. STEM careers offer many life- and work-related opportunities for individuals with learning disabilities. Flexible experiences through informal learning spaces offer important opportunities to promote participation, engagement, and motivation for science and to engage in local community resources, such as science centers and museums.

Guidelines and resources to support inclusive design for this group of science museum visitors will be generated through this NSF-funded project. Resources will include a toolkit that can be shared digitally and in print with youth with learning disabilities, informal STEM practitioners, and the learning disability research and practice community.

Editor’s Note: Samantha Daley, principal investigator, is available for interviews to discuss the three-year, NSF-funded Research in Service to Practice project, “Intrinsic Motivation in Science Museums: Learning from and Broadening Participation of Visitors with Learning Disabilities.”

Photo Credit: All photos provided by the Rochester Museum & Science Center (RMSC)