A submarine on display at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. Photo: ImagineerInc/shutterstock

Education in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields is a key interest for many philanthropic funders, including corporations, foundations and public sources such as the National Science Foundation. Nevertheless, a number of challenges confront fundraisers in the space—among them, the need to adjust during COVID, to resource underrepresented groups, and to measure impact.

Fundraisers we spoke with assert the importance of both targeted and broad approaches to improving STEM learning outcomes across the country, especially for underrepresented groups. They observe that corporations are increasing support for out-of-school science learning—which may help STEM organizations reach more diverse audiences—and foundations are investing significant resources in science communication. A challenge has been the diversion of funding to support basic needs at the height of COVID-19, which made it more difficult to sustain support for areas such as the professional development of K-12 science educators.

Striking a balance between broad and targeted programs

Devon Nelson, assistant vice president of development at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, Illinois, oversees all areas of philanthropy, including individual and institutional giving to the museum. Nelson said that fundraisers are seeking to balance attracting funding for STEM programming aimed at a wider audience, while also responding to funders’ desire to direct special attention and resources to the most under-resourced communities. She pointed to a recent shift in focus, primarily at foundations, to achieving more impact on the neighborhood level — in particular, to help reduce racial wealth disparities. “While STEM programs are a step in the direction of that,” Nelson said, “to show direct impact between STEM education and reducing the gap can be challenging work in neighborhoods.”

Rex Babiera, ITW director of professional learning at the Museum of Science and Industry, directs facilitated experiences for field trip groups, supports professional development for science teachers, and develops learning resources, such as science activity kits. Babiera said that striking a balance between broad-based and targeted programming is part of how STEM programs are evolving after deep inequalities became more apparent during COVID.

“Funders are coming around to saying explicitly that the investment in different communities historically has been unequal,” Babiera said. “So we’re looking for those places that are under-resourced systemically, and trying to align a more targeted focus on those areas within the umbrella of ‘everybody gets something.’ Because research shows that when you devote programs and resources to targeted areas that have been under-invested in in the past, everyone benefits.”

Nelson said, “I hope that there can be some understanding that the world needs both. When we’re talking about community investment, you need organizations that are really inside those communities, but you also need organizations that have a broader-based approach.”

A related challenge is responding to funder insistence on demonstrating certain outcomes when that attribution can be difficult. “There’s always a challenge in trying to meet the reporting outcomes, having a broad-based approach like we do,” Nelson said. “Our programs still are really impactful and have great need, even if the outcome isn’t ‘10 students’ science tests went up by XYZ amount, and therefore they got a job as a chemist.’”

We also spoke to Executive Director Ron Ottinger and Director of Philanthropic and Strategic Partnerships Kam Kyzer at the STEM Next Opportunity Fund. Based in San Diego, California, STEM Next works through a national network of large, youth-serving organizations to strengthen STEM learning, focusing on middle school and out-of-school time. The organization focuses primarily on the middle elementary grades because, Ottinger said, “The research tells us that if a young boy or girl hasn’t said he or she is interested in being a scientist by then, it’s much less likely to happen.” Donors include the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, the Wallace Foundation, and a robust slate of corporate partners.

“The local is always important,” Kyzer said, “especially from a corporate funding standpoint, because [corporations] have to show up in their local markets and communities as being a good local partner.” Corporations play an outsized role in STEM philanthropy, investing in STEM education to strengthen their businesses and the overall economy. Ottinger reported that corporate funders are expanding beyond the programs they have traditionally funded in their backyards. He gave the example of Panasonic North America, which is in the process of moving from a “school district strategy” to funding informal STEM learning.

Kyzer’s experience with STEM funders—corporations in particular—is that they tend to embrace risk-taking and experimentation. “They really come [along with you] in experimenting and pushing the envelope to figure out what works,” Kyzer said. For instance, Kyzer reported that Takeda Pharmaceuticals approached STEM Next to propose designing a program together to help kids get caught up in math, saying “‘Let’s look at the research, test out a couple of things, and then figure out how to get it to scale.’”

Nelson added that as funders respond to current events and shift emphases over time, fundraisers need to “align the great work that our program staff do to the national trends.” She continued, “It is our job as fundraisers to make sure that we’re listening to the funders and finding what resonates on both sides.” This includes the need to successfully reframe the way programs are described.

Another challenge that arose during COVID is raising and sustaining funds for training and other initiatives related to the implementation of the Next Generation Science Standards—a set of K-12 science content standards released in 2013—as funders pivoted to immediate, basic needs. Nelson said, “a couple of years ago, there was a lot of funding interest in what we were doing as a museum about the Next Generation Science Standards. There may be specific people that still have interest in that, but the pivot has meant getting money and resources directly into the hands of young people, students and their families.”

Toward a national, systems approach

There is “no one entity that’s going to eliminate all the barriers for underrepresented children in STEM education,” Kyzer said. STEM Next thus concentrates on attracting funding to build infrastructure to reach that goal. Ottinger said, “Where there is a structure that allows us to help scale quality programming, that’s where we have focused.”

For instance, Kyzer noted that it’s important for kids to have a network to tap into after an initial, animating experience. “You have to fund local programs in your backyard because somebody has to hold the week-long 4-H camp in Bentonville, Arkansas. Walmart needs to keep funding that local camp. But it cannot be a ‘one-and-done’ experience. You might have a girl there who gets super-excited about one STEM experience, and then what?”

Part of STEM Next’s work involves collaboration with the STEM Funders Network. “We work on issues that none of us could do alone,” Ottinger said. “In the early stages, we came together to support the development of the Next Generation Science Standards, because without those standards, we wouldn’t have the framework to move forward.”

“There’s no effective science engagement without great science communication.”

The Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University in New York offers graduate and professional development programs that train scientists to be effective communicators, mainly through workshops that employ improvisational theater. The Alda Center’s $2 million annual budget comes from workshop fees and philanthropic funding, including a $3 million gift from the Simons Foundation in 2019. The Kavli Foundation is also a supporter.

The Alda Center’s executive director, Dr. Laura Lindenfeld, emphasized the importance of philanthropy for science communication programs. Science communication “could slip through the cracks if the philanthropic community were not focused on it, especially as the need for more engaged science communications increases,” she said. “There’s no effective science engagement without great science communication.”

Lindenfeld credited the Kavli Foundation as well as the other members of the Science Philanthropy Alliance—which includes the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation—for providing excellent networking and learning opportunities. “We’ve benefited tremendously not only from their direct financial support, but from the networking and learning opportunities they provided,” Lindenfeld said.

Fundraising in the higher education context

A third of the Simons Foundation’s grant to the Alda Center is being used to initiate a study of how the workshops support science communication. Lindenfeld emphasized that the Alda Center “believes in empirical assessment of the work that we’re doing as part of the scientific community.” She added that the Alda Center employs “social science and educational understandings about how people learn, so that when we’re training scientists to go out in the world, they have a better understanding of how audiences perceive them.”

The Alda Center’s workshops can also help fundraisers secure National Science Foundation (NSF) grants through required statements of broader impacts. These impact statements describe a proposed activity’s potential to benefit society, and often include educational, community outreach and professional development activities. A good statement can help make an application more competitive.

Lindenfeld said, “The National Science Foundation is fundamentally critical to the scientific undertaking in this country. And the ability to advance broader impacts is core to their work. I’m thrilled when we are able to be a partner that can bring our tried-and-tested methodology to the table so that the scientists trying to achieve broader impacts can connect and engage more effectively with their various stakeholders and communities.”

Furthermore, at the Museum of Science and Industry, several NSF research and evaluation grants help staff assess the impact of their STEM education programs and exhibitions. For example, a current NSF grant evaluates how viewing a juried art exhibition affected visitors’ experiences of other science throughout the museum. Since being able to demonstrate program effectiveness is an important aspect of securing and renewing grants, NSF funding may improve fundraisers’ ability to attract more funding.

Out-of-school time and diversity in STEM

A significant focus of STEM philanthropy is diversifying the scientific fields. STEM Next has been successful in raising funds for informal STEM learning experiences, as grantmakers recognize their importance for girls and others traditionally underrepresented in STEM. Ottinger emphasized that out-of-school time is where kids who haven’t been exposed to STEM in engaging ways often get their start.

“It’s a low-stakes environment where they can really see the joy of engineering and design, and feel pride and accomplishment,” Ottinger said. “They begin to develop confidence and competence, whereas in school, there is high anxiety around math and more traditional approaches to teaching science.”

STEM Next’s family engagement efforts, in particular, emphasize reaching kids from populations that often receive less exposure to STEM due to factors like their race, gender or economic status, as well as immigrants and kids with disabilities. The organization received a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York to bolster their family engagement work in 2020.

Out-of-school STEM experiences are also of particular importance for Babiera of the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. He said, “We want to make sure that kids who participate in afterschool programs have the opportunity to do science because we think out-of-school time is a really important place for us to promote kids becoming interested, motivated and excited about being science learners.”