Cultivating Innovative Thinking Skills in STEM Education

Project: Research project

Project Details


This project aims to serve the national interest by enhancing innovative thinking skills in STEM education, which is important for sustaining the nation's global leadership in science and engineering. Student innovation competitions and challenges (ICCs) play an important role in motivating, educating, and providing training grounds for the next generation of innovators. Given the growth of ICCs in higher education entrepreneurship and innovation ecosystems, this project will help advance the theoretical basis for explaining how these experiential opportunities build students' competence and self-confidence in innovation and help them discover their limitations and capabilities. Specifically, the proposed work will validate a theoretical research model based on Transformative Learning Theory with the overarching goal of helping STEM students become more open to new ideas, different identities, social attitudes, and values while also enabling them with decision-making tools to evaluate alternative viewpoints. By advancing the STEM education community's understanding of the roles and processes of ICCs in cultivating an innovation mindset, the project outcomes will lead to better integration of ICCs within existing STEM curricula, thereby helping more students to develop an innovative mindset. Finally, a systematic investigation of strategies to attract a diverse group of students to ICCs will facilitate broadening participation in entrepreneurial and innovation ecosystems.

The project postulates that participating in ICCs is a transformative experience for students as they gain deeper self-awareness of their capabilities in innovation and become more open and critically minded. To answer research questions related to this main hypothesis, the project puts forward a research model that synthesizes the Transformative Learning Theory and Kern Entrepreneurial Engineering Network's 3Cs (Curiosity, Connections, Creating Value) Framework. The project's research activities are organized in five interconnected research thrusts: (i) capturing students' experiences in ICCs through interviews; (ii) developing the Transformative Learning Scale for the Innovation Mindset (TLSIM) to assess transformations in students' mindset toward innovation; (iii) validating TLSIM in various ICCs and other experiential learning settings including internships and capstone courses; (iv) investigating the relationships among attributes of ICCs, student backgrounds, transformative learning processes, and student outcomes; and (v) studying the factors that motivate diverse groups of students to participate in ICCs. The project outcomes will generate new knowledge about how different aspects of ICCs can facilitate transformations in students' mindsets toward innovation, thereby laying the groundwork to improve ICCs' potential for building student agency and self-efficacy. In addition, the project outcomes will help to increase diversity and inclusion in STEM fields in two ways. First, the research model's underlying hypothesis, which posits that transformative experiences lead to mindset changes, can stimulate new research on the effectiveness of STEM-related activities in attracting more diverse students. Second, by emphasizing open‐mindedness as a key outcome of ICCs, the project outcomes will support enhancing diversity, equity, and inclusion in entrepreneurial ecosystems. Project results will be disseminated to the STEM education community through technical conferences, engineering education journals, and academic social networks. The NSF IUSE: EHR Program supports research and development projects to improve the effectiveness of STEM education for all students. Through the Engaged Student Learning track, the program supports the creation, exploration, and implementation of promising practices and tools.

This award reflects NSF's statutory mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation's intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.

Effective start/end date10/15/219/30/24


  • National Science Foundation: $286,185.00


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