Our Research

FUSE is based on new understandings of out-of-school, interest-driven STEM learning research and interest-driven learning with media and technology. The conceptual framework for our approach is informed by several lines of research.


Alternative Participation in STEM.  The first of these is the NSF-funded LIFE Center (co-led by Stevens), which has among its key foci everyday, STEM-related learning outside of schools and the possible design implications of these out-of-school learning experiences for innovations in the design of new learning environments. Among the primary conceptual findings of the LIFE Center studies (Bevan, Stevens, & Bell, in press; NRC, 2009; Barron, 2006) and related prior work (e.g., Stevens, 2000), is that often opportunities for STEM learning and capacities for these activities among youth go unrecognized or are even actively suppressed in the context of schooling’s too-narrow definitions of what counts as STEM. Taken together, the LIFE Center studies have invited thinking about alternative ways of organizing STEM activity and supporting participation that tap into youths’ interests and point them toward increasing expertise through social participation.

Connected Learning.  A second line of research informing our work comes from the Digital Youth Project (Ito et al., 2009), which involved examining how youth engage in learning with new media and what roles adults play in those experiences. The Digital Youth Project emphasized the power of ‘connected learning’ (Thomas & Brown, 2011), which was characterized as participatory (demanding active social engagement and contribution in knowledge communities and collectives); learner-centered (empowering individuals of all ages to take ownership of their learning linked across a wide range of settings—in school, at home, and informally with friends and peers); interest-driven (propelled by the energies of learners pursuing their unique and shared interests and passions); and inclusive (drawing in learners from diverse backgrounds). Ito et al. (2009) identified three levels of youth engagement: hanging out, messing around, and geeking out. As a young person gains interest and expertise in a topic, he or she moves through these phases: Hanging Out (HO), a primarily friendship-driven exploratory stage; Messing Around (MA), interest-driven experimenting and playing with ideas; and Geeking Out (GO), developing an identification with a topic a commitment to acquiring further expertise.

This HO-MA-GO framework informed the design of the YOUmedia space at the Chicago Public Library (CPL) (Austin, Ehrlich, Puckett, & Singleton, 2011). YOUmedia is an innovative space for high school-age youth to explore, create, and learn with various forms of digital media. Similar to prior after-school sites like the Intel Computer Clubhouse Network (Resnick, Rusk, & Cooke, 1998), YOUmedia was created to connect Chicago youth to digital media production tools and mentors. Our efforts seek to enable similar access in the area of STEM.

Video game design principles. Our approach draws inspiration from recent research and theorizing about the prospects of video games as learning environments (NRC, 2011). In FUSE, we are not building video games; we are abstracting participation structures from video game play to organize these new STEM learning experiences. Two core ideas give shape to our approach here. First as Gee, Squire, and Salen have argued (Gee, 2007a, 2007b; Squire, 2003, 2011; Salen & Zimmerman, 2005), core features of good video game design lead to participation by players that is voluntary, engaged, extended, and persisting, even in the face of hard challenges. Gee goes further to argue that games are effectively a set of problems, arranged in such a way that players can progressively level up, increasing their skillfulness as they do. This is a core idea for FUSE.

In addition, ethnographic studies by Stevens and colleagues (Stevens, Satwicz, & McCarthy, 2008) suggest that there are critical features of the in-room social experience surrounding the game space that make for good learning environments. Stevens and colleagues found that when young people are engaged in game play and face challenges, their peers, siblings, and others who are present begin to help and co-participate in the surmounting of in-game challenges. They documented that players devise new, creative, and quite diverse ‘learning arrangements’ while solving these challenges. FUSE combines these two insights in building challenge sequences: embody engaging video game design principles and build physical and digital spaces that cultivate the creation of new learning arrangements between participants and with mentors.

This research is supported by the National Science Foundation under NSF grants DRL-1348800 and DRL-1433724. However, 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 the National Science Foundation.