Fung Fellowship receives NSF grant to engage older adults in informal STEM learning through design

The grant will help fund pioneering research on the effects of informal STEM learning among older adults.

The Fung Fellowship for Wellness and Technology Innovations, the UC Berkeley Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) and the Lawrence Hall of Science are proud recipients of the National Science Foundation (NSF) Grant for Informal Learning: Investigating Measurement of STEM Engagement and Advocacy in Older Adults.

Here, we discuss the grant’s purpose, what it means for the Fung Fellowship and the impacts it can have on enhancing STEM advocacy and learning in older adults.

Informal learning is loosely defined as learning outside of a traditional educational establishment. Instead of teacher-centered learning, informal learning is constructed through participation or self-knowledge creation. While historically, informal learning environments focus on K-12 and families, the grant re-imagines them to enhance learning for older adults. In particular, it hopes to understand how interactions in informal learning environments can facilitate deeper learning in STEM and lead to science and technology advocacy.

The Fung Fellowship has a unique stake given their experience in designing for older adult populations. The grant allows the Fung Fellowship to investigate characteristics for success in informal STEM learning (ISL) opportunities and examine what motivates older adults to participate. For example, does participation in ISL opportunities lead to continued learning and future science advocacy, such as mentoring students in STEM or participating in science-related communities or civic engagement?

Partnering with OLLI, the Fung Fellowship will create an intergenerational design challenge event, pairing older adults with Fellows from this year’s cohort to brainstorm, ideate, and prototype solutions together. Such design challenges provide an instructional approach to implement experiential, project-based learning for participants (often in teams) to investigate a real-world problem and develop viable solutions.

“The design framework is not only an accessible way to problem solve,” says Jennifer Mangold, Director of the Fung Fellowship and Principal Investigator on the grant, “but it also allows students and older adults to bring unique perspectives and gain empathy in a way that is amplified through generations working together. Older adults find this aspect of design challenges compelling, as they have a wealth of life experience that may be beneficially applied to the challenges; in fact, acknowledging and drawing upon that experience is a fundamental principle of older adult learning. ”

“The ‘intergenerational’ part is absolutely deliberate,” Jennifer says. “We could have just included older adults in the design challenge as they are the focus of the research,, but we’ve found in past partnerships with OLLI that the intergenerational pairing creates a really rich learning environment for both the older adults and the undergraduates.”

A group of Fung Fellows gathers around a laptop on a table; a poster on the table says “#Fungfellows”.
A group of Fung Fellows gathers around a laptop on a table; a poster on the table says “#Fungfellows”.

“This area is a new field where little has been published related to the potential of enhancing STEM advocacy in older adults through ISL. Yet there is so much opportunity to make an impact,” Jennifer tells us. “Science and technology are pervasive in so many aspects of our work, health and society and are profoundly influenced by scientific inquiry. Increasing the public’s understanding and appreciation of science is paramount to advocating for STEM. Our pilot program has the potential to make a real impact and lay the foundation for future research in this field. The project will develop and pilot new tools to measure the impacts of the ISL experience on older adults, which will ultimately generate new knowledge through the rigorous, systematic development of measures of older adult learning.”

Jennifer highlights the broader societal impact of the grant, “As people live longer, this is an incredible step in providing pathways for older adults to continue lifelong learning and as a result remain engaged in societal issues and their own communities.”

To learn more about the grant, visit the NSF website.

Connect with Jennifer.

Learn more about the Fung Fellowship at fungfellows.berkeley.edu.

The Fung Fellowship at UC Berkeley is shaping the next generation of health, conservation, and technology leaders for a better world. 🌱

The Fung Fellowship at UC Berkeley is shaping the next generation of health, conservation, and technology leaders for a better world. 🌱