16 September 2022

New NSF funding to study online STEM learning

A $1.9 million will explore how online STEM programs can yield improved STEM identity in girls.

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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — MagLab research faculty Roxanne Hughes and a team of educational researchers and STEM education program developers were awarded $1.9 million dollars from the National Science Foundation to study the impact of online learning communities on participating girls' interest, identification and long-term participation in STEM.

Working in partnership with the National Girls Collaborative Project (NGCP) and Smart Girls HQ, Hughes will study four-hundred girls between the ages of 13 and 16 who participate in online science, technology, engineering and math activities to see which ones boost girls' STEM identity – or their self-recognition as a STEM person.

"We know that this is a critical age where young women lose their sense of competence in science, technology, math, engineering, coding, and other STEM-related areas and we have just begun to see the impact of online learning due to the COVID19 pandemic," explains Hughes. "This study will develop a new understanding of which online educational approach best helps these young women feel that a STEM career path is for them. And can engage girls that might not have access to informal STEM educational programs due to lack of transportation or internet access."

Students often experience a lack of connectedness, limited or inconsistent engagement, and teacher-centered approaches in online environments which can make online learning challenging for both participants and educators. So this research project will test the influence of three core approaches to explore which might yield stronger STEM identity development for the female online participants: 1) community building, 2) authentic and competence-demonstrating hands-on activities, and 3) interactive learning with women role models. At the end of the project, the young women participants will have gained an exposure to diverse STEM careers and role models and a support network to help them make decisions about their futures in engineering, the physical sciences and computer science – three areas where women remain underrepresented.

Beyond the impact on students, the project will also equip researchers and practitioners with new research-tested strategies to support girls in online STEM communities. Twenty educators will receive targeted training in the three core strategies yielding a transformative educational toolkit for fostering girls’ interest, identification, and long-term participation in STEM. Teachers have a compounding impact on student successes with one teacher reaching on average about 3,000 students during their career.

The growth of online learning initiated by the COVID-19 pandemic coupled with a lack of representation of women of color in STEM fields makes this research project particularly critical.

"We see a crisis of representation stemming from a perceived sense of belonging and future success in STEM, largely rooted in intersecting inequalities, including gender, race, ethnicity, and class that hinder girls' STEM identity development and have compounding impacts on the STEM workforce," Hughes says. "We have to find a new way to create these positive impacts on girls’ sense of belonging in STEM in the online world which is where so many students are spending their time now."

The Brite Practices will add to the breadth of research on STEM identity development and will be disseminated across the United States through NGCP’s network which supports and facilitates collaboration between more than 42,500 organizations serving over 20.2 million girls.


The National High Magnetic Field Laboratory is the world’s largest and highest-powered magnet facility. Located at Florida State University, the University of Florida and Los Alamos National Laboratory, the interdisciplinary National MagLab hosts scientists from around the world to perform basic research in high magnetic fields, advancing our understanding of materials, energy and life. The lab is funded by the National Science Foundation (DMR-1644779) and the State of Florida. For more information, visit us online at nationalmaglab.org or follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest at NationalMagLab.