Northwestern University Professor Shirin Vossoughi received a $218,000 grant from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation to continue her groundbreaking work looking at culture, equity and learning in after-school tinkering programs.
Vossoughi and Meg Escudé, director of the Tinkering After School Program, a partnership between the Exploratorium and the Boys and Girls Clubs of San Francisco, spent three years studying how students and both adult and teen educators interact in tinkering settings to help make the programs more robust and meaningful for non-dominant populations.
Tinkering and making programs are hands-on project-oriented spaces where participants design and create tangible objects such as musical instruments, wooden pinball machines, and homemade speakers.
In these collaborative and intergenerational spaces, the elder’s role is more nuanced than in a traditional classroom. Educators are intentional, not totally hands off.
But while maker education programs are growing in popularity, they still have a largely white male sensibility, or operate from what Vossoughi sees as a narrow approach to equity.
Equity usually means access. “But it also means working with culturally situated practices like sewing, not assuming everyone wants to take things apart, and connecting making to childrens’ histories and everyday lives,” Vossoughi said.
Vossoughi’s latest grant will support the second phase of the Learning Through Youth Community Tinkering project, which will expand the analysis of the data set and trace the learning trajectories of core participants over a 3.5-year period. Vossoughi also will be collaborating on this phase of the project with Paula Hooper, assistant professor of instruction in the Master of Science in Education Program in the School of Education and Social Policy.
“We strongly believe these findings will contribute new insights to the field, particularly with regards to the way we define and assess learning, the creative development of STEAM learning environments and the need to substantially challenge the narrowing of school curriculum – a problem many of the students we work with are wrestling with first-hand,” Vossoughi said.
During the project’s first phase, also funded by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, the research team collected data in the form of ethnographic field notes, audio-video recordings of learning activity, and interviews with children, educators, and parents.
These data were used to create a professional development tool for educators after observing that novice teachers occasionally took the objects that the children were working with out of their hands to solve a problem, without fully involving the students.
“This is well-intentioned but overlooks the opportunities for learning or shared thinking and investigation in those seemingly small moments,” Vossoughi said.
Vossoughi and Escudé also have played lead roles in the “Stem-rich Afterschool Making Project,” a partnership between The Institute of Museum and Library Service, the U.S. Department of Education and the Exploratorium.
Here, their preliminary research provided the foundation for new curriculum and professional development materials to support the scaling of tinkering to 25 after-school programs serving low-income populations across the country.
As the daughter of Iranian immigrants and political exiles, Vossoughi is personally invested in developing creative educational settings for youth from migrant, immigrant and diasporic backgrounds. She takes a collaborative approach to research and design, partnering with teachers and students to study the conditions that foster educational dignity and possibility.
“Making is one potential space where we can reimagine education,” Vossoughi told KQED. “Kids are brilliant, and it’s our responsibility to notice their brilliance and deepen it.”