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Interest-Driven Learning Among Middle School Youth in an Out-of-School STEM Studio

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The concept of connected learning proposes that youth leverage individual interest and social media to drive learning with an academic focus. To illustrate, we present in-depth case studies of Ryan and Sam, two middle-school-age youth, to document an out-of-school intervention intended to direct toward intentional learning in STEM that taps interest and motivation. The investigation focused on how Ryan and Sam interacted with the designed elements of Studio STEM and whether they became more engaged to gain deeper learning about science concepts related to energy sustainability. The investigation focused on the roles of the engineering design process, peer interaction, and social media to influence youth interest and motivation. Research questions were based on principles of connected learning (e.g., self-expression, lower barriers to expertise, socio-technical supports) with data analyzed within a framework suggested by discursive psychology. Analyzing videotaped excerpts of interactions in the studio, field notes, interview responses, and artifacts created during the program resulted in the following findings: problem solving, new media, and peer interaction as designed features of Studio STEM elicited evidence of stimulating interest in STEM for deeper learning. Further research could investigate individual interest-driven niches that are formed inside the larger educational setting, identifying areas of informal learning practice that could be adopted in formal settings. Moreover, aspects of youth’s STEM literacy that could promote environmental sustainability through ideation, invention, and creativity should be pursued.

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This material is based on work supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF) under Grants DRL 1029756 and 1239959, and the Institute for Creativity, Arts and Technology (ICAT) and the Institute for Society, Culture and Environment (ISCE) at Virginia Tech. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of sponsors. Studio STEM ( at Virginia Tech includes the authors, and a talented team of coinvestigators (Drs. Brett Jones, Christine Schnittka, and Carol Brandt), and graduate and undergraduate research assistants. We thank Ms. Samantha Won, doctoral student in the Department of Learning Sciences and Technologies, Virginia Tech, for providing valuable feedback on earlier versions of the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Michael A. Evans.

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Evans, M.A., Lopez, M., Maddox, D. et al. Interest-Driven Learning Among Middle School Youth in an Out-of-School STEM Studio. J Sci Educ Technol 23, 624–640 (2014).

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