Increasing Children's Sense of Belonging in STEM Fields (2023-2024)

Please reach out to Tamar Kushnir ( with questions about this project.


Children are often called “little scientists” for their natural curiosity and drive to explore the world around them. However, with time, children’s motivation to learn becomes increasingly susceptible to social influence, and the words “science” and “scientist” become associated with a particular social identity — that of a white male. This leads young girls and children of color to lose motivation for STEM learning as early as six years of age, putting them at risk for avoiding opportunities to engage in STEM learning early in their lives.

Science museums are the perfect space for encouraging young children from all backgrounds to build their STEM identity through informal, playful and engaging learning experiences early in their educational and social development. Inclusive and inviting experiences in museums are integral to increasing diversity and representation in STEM.

Project Description

This project team will work with the Museum of Life and Science in Durham to design and implement a pilot study centered on creating a structured and encouraging experience for young children visiting the museum. The museum has a proud history of serving the community by providing engaging STEM learning experiences and extracurricular programming. Its ongoing partnership with Duke is guided by a mission to cultivate relationships between scientists and the broader community and serve as a “living lab” for research with children and families at the museum. 

In partnership with the museum, this team will design interventions that increase children’s sense of belonging; create an assessment tool for children’s engagement and science identity; and design parent questionnaires to assess satisfaction with museum and attitudes toward science. 

Initially, team members will collect data from 100-150 children and families at the museum to test the feasibility of their interventions with the goal of scaling their interventions more widely. As part of this research, team members will spend several hours on the museum floor each week, first getting to know the museum and then collecting data.

Through increasing children’s sense of belonging, the project aims to bolster children’s identity as scientists and increase their motivation to pursue STEM learning opportunities in the museum, in the classroom and beyond.

Anticipated Outputs

Papers for publication; museum tools for measuring identity, belonging and motivation; data and funding applications for further research-museum partnerships

Student Opportunities

Ideally, this project team will include 1 graduate student and 6-8 undergraduate students interested in early childhood development and/or education, with a particular focus on promoting diversity in STEM.

Students will gain research skills in designing protocols for assessment of key variables of interest, collecting data with children and parents, developing coding schemes for data, analyzing results and preparing written and oral reports for presentations to museum staff and for publication. Students will also gain experience with engaged research, learning valuable skills in civic engagement and collaborative problem-solving. 

Graduate students will build research and professional skills through opportunities to serve as a research mentor and project supervisor. They will also be able to use the data to lead the writing of a publication for a peer-reviewed journal. 


Fall 2023 – Summer 2024

  • Fall 2023:  Conduct meetings with museum team to establish project scope and determine initial study design; collect pilot data to evaluate design; apply for Institutional Review Board (IRB) approval 
  • Spring 2024: Collect data; code data and conduct preliminary analysis; present results to museum team for feedback
  • Summer 2024 (optional): Collect data; conduct analyses and write results into research paper for publication; present to museum board


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

This Team in the News

Museum Partnerships Serve as Roots for Growing Kids’ STEM Identity

Image: Leafcutter ant colony 01, Museum of Life and Science, Durham, North Carolina, USA, by Scott Zona, licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Fungus garden with queen, shown under clear plastic or glass dome.

Team Leaders

  • Sarah Gaither, Arts & Sciences-Psychology and Neuroscience
  • Tamar Kushnir, Arts & Sciences-Psychology and Neuroscience

/graduate Team Members

  • Mercedes Munoz, Psychology-PHD
  • Jessa Stegall, Psychology-PHD

/undergraduate Team Members

  • Carly Blank
  • Maria Brown
  • Charli Cordoves, Psychology (AB)
  • LaNaiah Frieson
  • Janvi Kavathia, Psychology (BS)
  • Dena Silver, Biology (BS)

/yfaculty/staff Team Members

  • Sydney Revell, Arts & Sciences-Psychology and Neuroscience

/zcommunity Team Members

  • Peregrine Bratschi, NC Museum of Life and Science
  • Max Cawley, NC Museum of Life and Science
  • Museum of Life and Science, Durham, NC