Ignite: Improving Students' STEM-Identity Through Human-Centered Design (2023-2024)


Many public school students in North Carolina are below national averages in science performance and proficiency, and underrepresented minorities in STEM are disproportionately impacted by the lack of identity development when it comes to exploratory learning. 

Culturally responsive learning environments may equip these students with essential skills needed to address 21st-century challenges. However, the state of North Carolina has not yet adopted these standards, so the curriculum and mentorship surrounding engineering are largely unavailable to students. Informal learning environments involving partnerships between science-rich institutions and local communities can improve STEM learning, increase students’ perseverance and broaden STEM participation.

Ignite is a STEM program that uses design thinking to train the next generation of innovators in how to solve the most pressing global challenges as outlined in the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. In 2019-2020, a Bass Connections team brought together an interdisciplinary team of innovators and educators to create Ignite curricula for implementation in the Durham Public Schools system. In 2021, Ignite partnered with the Museum of Life and Science in Durham to implement the curriculum with local middle and high school students, focusing on North Carolina-specific engineering challenges. Researchers found that Ignite increased students’ self-efficacy and knowledge of and attitudes toward STEM.

Project Description

This project team will develop a research framework for engineering education to govern future Ignite implementations in Durham and inform the larger engineering education field. 

In the fall, team members will learn the current Ignite curriculum and evaluation metrics, including the previous Ignite team’s online platform. Then, they will establish a mixed-methods research framework, including embedded metrics, pre- and post-surveys, field notes, informal reflection interviews with students and guardians, and student artifacts to examine how programs like Ignite transform students’ iterative practices and affect longer-term STEM participation.

In the spring, the team will implement Ignite and its research metrics in partnership with the Museum of Life and Science. This will provide approximately 60 middle school and 20 high school students with an eight-week engineering program that includes a multimodal virtual curriculum and three structured weekend trips to the museum for hands-on learning. Team members will choose one of three curricula (Clean Energy, Clean Water or Good Health) and work through the “hear, create and deliver” phases of human-centered design. Their work will culminate in a conference at Duke where prototypes will be presented, and final metrics will be collected.

Anticipated Outputs

Engineering education research framework for middle and high school students; new research metrics to assess impact of selected variables within curricula; data collection to inform future programs; research publication from data collected; preliminary work for education research grants

Student Opportunities

Ideally, this project team will include 2 graduate students and 8 undergraduate students. Graduate students in education, engineering and the sciences are encouraged to apply. Undergraduates in both Pratt and Trinity are invited to participate, though all students should have experience or interest in teaching. Ideally, one or more students would be pursuing an education minor and one or two students would be heavily STEM-focused.
Team members will learn how to use innovative curricula focused on problem-solving through design-thinking to improve education outcomes.

Unique opportunities for graduate students include honing leadership skills in managing a subteam and fostering mentorship and teaching skills during interactions with younger students. 

In Fall 2023, the team will meet on Tuesdays from 3:45-4:45 p.m. During weekly meetings, the team leaders will help set forth goals, facilitate discussions and give informal, activity-centered presentations about education and research methodologies. Then, students will be split into smaller groups, each led by a graduate student leader, to discuss weekly deliverables, methods and research outcomes.

There will be an optional eight-week research component in Summer 2024 during which students will analyze research results and disseminate findings from the year.


Fall 2023 – Summer 2024

  • Fall 2023: Learn about previous curricula; research education methodologies and design metrics; synthesize and apply education and psychology theory to an engineering program; establish research framework surrounding spring implementation; seek Institutional Review Board (IRB) approval
  • Spring 2024: Implement research study; collect research metrics; perform impact assessment; analyze collected data
  • Summer 2024 (optional): Analyze research results; disseminate findings; optimize metrics and adjust current curriculum based on spring implementation for following year; submit updated IRB approval 


Academic credit available for fall and spring semesters; summer funding available

This Team in the News

Ignite Helps Students Illuminate—and Solve—Problems in Their Own Community

Museum Partnerships Serve as Roots for Growing Kids’ STEM Identity

See earlier team, Ignite: Empowering Students through STEM Curricula Integrating the Sustainable Development Goals (2019-2020).


Image: Ignite’s Learner Program

Young students wearing masks and working on making science constructions.

Team Leaders

  • David Knudsen, Museum of Life and Science, Durham, NC
  • Megan Madonna, Pratt School of Engineering-Biomedical Engineering
  • Nimmi Ramanujam, Pratt School of Engineering-Biomedical Engineering

/graduate Team Members

  • Kerry Eller, Biomedical Engineering-PHD
  • Shreepriya Gopal, Master of Engineering Mgmt-MEG

/undergraduate Team Members

  • Radha Amin, Biomedical Engineering (BSE)
  • Amaris Huang, Biomedical Engineering (BSE)
  • Hannah Lee, Computer Science (BS)
  • Marissa Sims, Biomedical Engineering (BSE)

/yfaculty/staff Team Members

  • Amy Anderson, Arts & Sciences-Program in Education
  • Bridgette Hard, Arts & Sciences-Psychology and Neuroscience
  • Timothy Holcomb, Education-Postdoc
  • Ann Saterbak, Pratt School of Engineering-Biomedical Engineering

/zcommunity Team Members

  • Museum of Life and Science