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Diversity and Equity

Re-imagining the Role of Families as Equal Partners in STEM Learning

Connected Science Learning October-December 2020 (Volume 2, Issue 4)

By Tarana Khan and Susana Beltran Grimm

Re-imagining the Role of Families as Equal Partners in STEM Learning

Family engagement has been a focus for many programs largely due to children spending more time with their families during the first 10 years of life than in any other social context (Dotti Sani and Treas 2016). Families can set the tone for how children learn, which is especially true when learning about STEM. Just as family participation in early reading skills and exposure to books at a young age positively impacts the development of reading skills, early exposure to STEM concepts and activities for children through family STEM programs can be an important contributor to children’s successful STEM learning outcomes (Haden et al. 2016). This is especially important because proficiency in some STEM skills, such as mathematics, predicts lifelong achievement (Hadani et al. 2018; Watts et al. 2018).

For example, children with a strong start in mathematics by age 5 have more tools available to them to problem solve and think critically—and are more likely to have a bright future ahead of them (Claessens and Engel 2013). However, the early mathematics knowledge gap is also most pronounced in children living in low-income neighborhoods, which are faced with low-quality formal school instruction, lack of parental education, and limited access to educational resources (Gandara and Contreras 2009; Lee and Bowen 2006; Rivas and Olmsted 2013; Suarez-Orozco 2013).

Effective and high-quality STEM family engagement should allow families to draw connections between their personal histories and everyday experiences. To do this, families should be included in the co-design process to have a voice and develop an identity as doers of STEM. PBS SoCal, Southern California’s local public broadcasting station, started the Compton Family Math program, which was designed to support mathematics learning at home and was informed by families’ needs and desires. Family Math, as defined by the emergent field of Family Math (Eason et al. 2020), is families’ awareness of mathematical concepts in everyday contexts, enthusiasm for doing and learning math, and access to resources that support this engagement.

PBS SoCal Family Math Program

The PBS SoCal Family Math program encompasses a broad range of content, resources, and services aimed at changing neighborhoods through family engagement. The services and curriculum include introductory Family Math workshops, a Family Math Parent Academy, Family Math Learning Community Workshops, and digital bilingual videos and articles featuring math activities, recipes, and resources. The program aims to ensure access to culturally responsive math opportunities through physical and digital public media spaces available to all families.

One of the major tenants of our Family Math work is using co-design methodologies to integrate caregivers into their children’s learning community and increase child and family mathematics positivity by offering fun learning opportunities and family workshops. Specifically, PBS SoCal aims to help families tie their understanding of math to their practice of math in the home. Families are central to supporting children's learning (Mapp and Kuttner 2013), yet creators of family engagement programs often fail to see their unique capabilities, specifically overlooking the contributions of disenfranchised Latino and Black families (Gonzalez et al. 2006; Nasir 2000; Taylor 2000). Many family engagement programs are designed without considering what families and children need and want (Jay et al. 2017; Marsh and Turner-Vorbeck 2010). Simply put, families often do not have a seat at the table.

PBS SoCal wanted to give families a voice by applying co-design principles to the development of the Family Math Parent Academy Curriculum to understand how families in Compton experienced teaching mathematics to their children. Borrowing ideas from the “Whole Teacher Approach” (designed by Dr. Jie-Qi Chen, founder of the Early Math Collaborative), the PBS SoCal Parent Academy sought to create a “Whole Home Approach.” This approach uses clear, simple language to identify and explain math topics that are essential for kindergarten readiness, such as cardinality, spatial sense, and patterns. The “Whole Home Approach” allows families to discover that math-learning opportunities are everywhere in their homes, daily routines, and local communities, illustrating that math can be easy and accessible. With this in mind, PBS SoCal partnered with The Early Learning Lab to better understand which learning opportunities would be fun, easy, and engaging for Compton families to do at home to create a Family Math curriculum that resonates with diverse families in Compton.

Co-Design Thinking Process

Originally developed by the Stanford University Design School, co-design thinking focuses on understanding the needs of a person who experiences a problem, focusing on whether the proposed solution is effectively meeting their needs. Co-design approaches center user's voices—in this instance, families’ voices (needs, wants, emotions, and values)—as experts to help co-create and co-design meaningful solutions to an issue (Fuad-Luke et al. 2015; Kang et al. 2015).

The approach is most effective when the person experiencing the issue becomes a part of the co-design process. This approach also seeks to challenge the imbalance of power often held within select groups of individuals by giving individuals a space to voice their concerns, build relationships, and encourage creativity (Gutiérrez and Jurow 2016), which is why a primary goal of the Family Math co-design process was to understand the barriers that prevent families from engaging with their children’s learning at home. Co-design approaches with and for families can offer an opportunity for collaboration between schools, programs, and organizations to help create a meaningful and sustainable change in family engagement programs.

Family Math Activities

Family Math Activities

The ongoing partnership between PBS SoCal and Compton Unified School District was instrumental in recruiting families who were interested in participating in the co-design sessions. Community Resource Specialists at Compton Elementary schools helped recruit families and allowed the sessions to be hosted in a familiar and comfortable space for families that were located within their child’s school. Participants were all mothers from Compton elementary schools, 88% Hispanic/Latino, 12% Black, and mostly bilingual or Spanish-only speakers. PBS SoCal staff developed the activities, which were designed to be culturally resonant with families and informed by their prior experience working with Latino and Black families. During the session, families tested prototypes of hands-on Family Math activities and provided their feedback.

Given that the majority of the Compton families that PBS SoCal connects with are Latino, many of the Family Math activities were designed to resonate with Latino or Spanish-speaking culture. In addition, the City of Compton is also home to a large percentage of Black families, making it essential that the Family Math activities are inclusive for families of all backgrounds. For example, families engaged with a modified lotería activity to explore concepts of counting and cardinality. Lotería is a traditional Mexican game of chance that is similar to the American game Bingo. Each parent received a colorfully illustrated game card that displayed 10 sets of traditional lotería images, such as trees, sunflowers, and watermelons, in quantities from 1 to 10. The object of the game was to count out loud while marking the spaces on the board with dry beans by finding the corresponding set of images that matched the number announced by the caller. Parents were encouraged to practice cardinality by emphasizing the last number to indicate the total number of items represented in the image.

Feedback and Findings

Feedback from parents suggested that they enjoyed the competitive aspect of the game and believed it could be a fun way to practice basic counting skills with their children; however, they thought the game could benefit from some extra features. Parents enjoyed emphasizing the final number as a way to cue children to understand that was representative of the total number of objects. Many parents who had played lotería or Bingo appreciated the familiarity of the game and were genuinely pleased that a game that was already part of their culture could be adapted to help their child practice counting. Deeper discussions with parents and facilitators revealed that parents needed a better understanding of the learning objective prior to the start of the game so that they would remember that the focus of the game was to practice counting and cardinality. Some parents asked for additional options on how to make the game more challenging for older children. Families believed that the lotería activity could easily fit into busy schedules because it could be played on-the-go or at home because the materials were accessible and easy to carry. Overall, the lotería activity met all design principles because it

  • helped parents become a curiosity guide,
  • embedded “class-to-home” cues,
  • helped parents understand how their child can learn the math concept,
  • embedded cultural resonance for parents,
  • was easy and simple enough for parents to understand and implement at home, and
  • modeled playfulness for families (The Early Learning Lab 2020).

Overall findings from two design sessions, eight interviews, and follow-up surveys indicated that families enjoyed exploring culturally relevant, authentic, and meaningful math learning experiences along with their children. After delving into how families’ culture, traditions, and everyday routines could become mathematics opportunities, findings showed that families were already practicing math-related activities at home, suggesting that existing routines and tasks could be incorporated into the Family Math curriculum.

It became clear that the success of the Family Math curriculum depended on the program’s ability to help families overcome daily challenges. Examples of common barriers to helping their children with mathematics in the ways that they wanted included lack of time and energy, balancing multiple children’s needs, finding ways to be creative with teaching, parent struggles with mathematics knowledge and confidence, and language barriers.

Follow-up interviews suggested that the Family Math design sessions may have helped families address some of the challenges they experience when teaching math at home to their children. Parents reported feeling confident in their ability to have math conversations at home after attending the design sessions. One mother described how the activities helped her talk to her children about doing math in less complicated and less stressful ways at home, implying that making math more fun could lessen anxiety some families feel about math (Herts et al. 2019). Parents were motivated to talk about how math can be used in several different aspects of life, suggesting that the design sessions helped families see the universal relevance of math. Simply having the materials to complete the activities allowed families to create space in their busy lives to learn and play with math. Parents enjoyed learning a variety of techniques to introduce math concepts, such as 3D shapes and counting, to their children. Parents found creative ways to include the materials provided by PBS SoCal or their own household objects in their math lessons, illustrating that the ingenuity of the design sessions inspired parents to feel more confident teaching math at home.

Family engagement programs like Family Math can mitigate barriers by inspiring families to see that learning opportunities exist all around them. By integrating co-design thinking methodologies, program providers and family engagement practitioners can engage in social design experimentation to develop family engagement programs that encourage social transformation for underserved families. Having Latino and Black families become co-creators of the family engagement programs will help amplify their voices as not only consumers of STEM but creators of STEM practices.

Five Steps to Implementing Family Design Sessions

Teachers, program providers, and family engagement practitioners can develop and implement hands-on design sessions that center around families’ voices. Use the following five steps from The Early Learning Lab to co-design family engagement programs with families (The Early Learning Lab 2020). Read the full brief by The Early Learning Lab for more information.

Step 1: Define your inquiry

Figure out why a design session will be useful for your program by brainstorming a list of questions that build on the frame of inquiry. What do you want to know more about? How will this session help you learn this information? These questions should inspire the design team and open up possibilities for exploration. It is often helpful to visualize your questions using a whiteboard, flipchart, or shared document.

Step 2: Plan your design session

Assign roles for who will be responsible for each aspect of the design session, including project managers and design session facilitators. Project managers recruit, schedule interviews, gather consent forms, collect and synthesize data, and manage communication with facilitators. Facilitators design the activities, conduct interviews, and facilitate the sessions. Assistant facilitators take photographs, capture audio recordings, and help with other session logistics such as food, classroom arrangement, and technology issues.

Step 3: Develop Curriculum and Prototypes

Begin developing prototypes that will help you answer the inquiries established in Step 1. PBS SoCal sought to design a curriculum that builds on early math concepts and skills, takes advantage of children’s natural curiosity, and is developmentally appropriate for early math learners. PBS SoCal designed four math activities that met the aforementioned criteria based on staff's prior experience working in communities that were made up of predominantly Latino and Black families. Efforts were made to make sure the curriculum resonated with family traditions and culture when possible.

Step 4: Create and execute a recruitment plan

Figure out which members in your community can help you best address your frame of inquiry. Identify participants that have varying perspectives regarding the focus of your design session. For Family Math design sessions, PBS SoCal sent parents a brief survey evaluating their confidence about teaching their child mathematics at home. We selected parents who had high, medium, and low levels of confidence to capture many different perspectives. Use connections with partner organizations to find participants who are the best match for the project because established networks usually result in more reliable recruitment and participation. Schedule brief phone conversations with parents in their preferred language before the design sessions to start building a relationship with them.

Step 5: Implement and follow up

Have multiple people assigned to observe and take detailed notes. Collect data from parents immediately and at least one week after participating in the design session. During the two-week follow-up, PBS SoCal asked parents how their conversations and activities changed at home since participating in the workshop. Other follow-up questions included whether participating in the workshop changed parents’ views of how they can teach their child math at home and if they were able to try any of the activities at home. After participating in the workshop, 96% of mothers reported feeling very comfortable adapting the math activities for at-home use, suggesting that families saw the ease and potential for including the activities in their everyday lives. All parents reported trying at least one of the Family Math activities two weeks after the design sessions were completed. One mother reported that having the educational math materials from the session inspired her to help her son with his homework. Another parent discussed how the design session motivated her to do more math-related arts and crafts activities with her child using Family Math resources she took home.

Recommendations for Co-Designing Family Engagement Programs

Using a co-design approach to designing family engagement programs can help families feel supported and empowered to become leaders in their child’s mathematics education. Provided are a few recommendations and guidelines based on PBS SoCal’s co-design experience and The Early Learning Lab’s core design principles that communities can use when designing family engagement programs (The Early Learning Lab 2020).

Listen to Family’s Voices, Routines, and Culture
  • When working with diverse communities, ensure that equity is at the center of designing culturally resonant family engagement to be inclusive of all families. Listen to families’ concerns to design programs that break down the barriers that they face in supporting their child’s learning at home.
  • Families are busy! Carefully deconstruct and evaluate what families are already doing in their everyday routines to figure out how to inspire them with new ways to build in at-home learning experiences into the tasks they do on a daily basis.
Ensure Ease and Accessibility in Content for At-Home Use 
  • Make it easy and tangible for families to translate classroom lessons to home lessons by designing cues, tools, and activities to help them see the mathematics opportunities in what they are already doing at home with their children, such as when cooking or doing laundry together. Encourage families to be curiosity guides for their children by modeling how to integrate early mathematics talk and concepts into everyday activities.
  • Ensure that the mathematics content and learning objectives are simplified for families so they can take the activity home and easily teach the same concept to their children. Model playfulness for parents so that they are inspired to bring the same energy at home.
Create Spaces for Communication and Collaboration
  • Build spaces for peer-to-peer relationships through conversations and sharing of ideas and resources. Families enjoyed and benefited from the social and community aspect of the design session, suggesting that they love learning from one another.
  • Develop supportive partnerships with school districts and other community organizations, such as nonprofit childcare centers or public libraries. Because these are institutions that families already trust, hosting workshops and parent design sessions within familiar spaces allow families to feel comfortable and safe and attend family engagement events at their convenience. Host sessions at different times in the day to accommodate different work and home schedules.

Concluding Thoughts

STEM programs, at present, tend to be conceived of and entrenched in silos of youth engagement, college and career readiness, and teaching improvement. However, several studies, including Rivas and Olmstead (2013), support the theory that family engagement is an essential tool for children’s STEM success. Although there are several family engagement programs and resources to support early literacy skills (YaeBin and Teresa 2016), there is limited research on Family Math engagement (Eason et al. 2020). Most of the research so far has been about children’s early math cognition instead of how low-income families can support and encourage these skills (Gibson et al. 2019; Holland et al. 2020). As a public media station, PBS SoCal is uniquely positioned to widely disseminate Family Math resources within the communities that helped us design our program and to organizations and practitioners who design family engagement programs for other low-income and ethnically diverse communities. Program providers and family engagement specialists can use these findings and co-design approaches to center family collaboration to transform children’s learning. Being intentional in engaging families—especially those from different cultural backgrounds—can be the new solution.

Author Note

The authors of this article use the term Latino because the families in Compton choose to identify as Latino, rather than Latinx. Therefore, the term Latino is used to be more inclusive of the families PBS SoCal connects with through their family engagement services.


Tarana Khan, PhD (, is an Education Research and Evaluation Analyst and Susana Beltran Grimm is the Director of Early Learning, both at PBS SoCal in Costa Mesa, California.

citation: Khan, T., and S.B. Grimm. 2020. Re-imagining the role of families as equal partners in STEM learning. Connected Science Learning 2 (4).


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