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Outdoor Recreation: Connecting Rural Youth with STEM Careers

Outdoor Recreation: Connecting Rural Youth with STEM Careers

Project Description

Outdoor Recreation is a rapidly growing STEM-connected economic sector (Outdoor Foundation, 2023) and, at $862B in economic output, is contributing more to U.S. GDP than farming, mining (including oil and gas), electronics manufacturing, and utilities (Rzeznik & O’Connell, 2022).

For some rural communities, the outdoor recreation ecosystem is an integral part of the STEM learning ecosystem that connects rural youth with STEM and STEM career pathways. Landowners and forest managers construct and fly drones to inventory, map, and monitor resources. Hatcheries monitor fish levels and sustain populations for recreational fisheries. Backcountry skiers depend on snow science and avalanche forecasts to assess conditions. Outdoor recreation that youth in rural communities are currently engaging in can be sources of opportunities and experiences for cultivating their STEM identities and career aspirations.

Existing studies have shown the promise of specific, one-time interventions and discrete activities, however, none have situated activities in a broader ecosystem framework comprising a nascent and growing economic sector that is currently shaping rural communities.

The goal of this research study was to understand the feasibility and potential applications of Outdoor Recreation as a lever to drive STEM identity development for youth (grades 7-11) in New Hampshire’s rural communities.

Findings from the Research

  • Youth were enthusiastic participants. We set out to recruit 30 youth but ended up with 54. We had a 96% retention rate from the 54 youth throughout the 10-month research period.
  • Positioning youth as co-researchers fosters engagement. Youth were out in the field documenting their activities, reporting on their findings, and reflecting on connections to STEM and the significance to their future pathways. Youth were “paid” for their effort (they received gift cards for their completed challenges).
  • Youth see STEM in outdoor recreation. Throughout the study, youth remained engaged and thoughtful about the impact the study had on their perceptions of STEM. “Before this project I didn’t want anything to do with STEM, but now I want my future to involve STEM.” —10th-grade co-researcher
  • Participants shared their ideas using a universally designed, mobile-first tool. Youth used ORfolio, developed by CAST, to upload images, videos, text and/or audio on their phones in response to challenges posed by researchers. Researchers in turn could offer feedback to the youth through the tool and capture usage data.
  • CAST and UNH are exploring funding opportunities to expand on this research with additional rural communities.

"I feel accomplished because I feel like my visions and overall look at life have improved since starting this project. I am more motivated, and I am thinking more about careers in STEM and outdoor recreation. This makes me wonder what my future will look like, and if it will look different now that I've done this project."

— 10th grade co-researcher

Screenshot of a Taylor & Francis Article

Universal Design for Learning: Strategies for Engaging Rural Youth Co-Researchers with Informal STEM Learning

Read the full article


August 2022 – November 2023


National Science Foundation's Advancing Informal STEM Learning (AISL) program

Science Technology Engineering and Math (STEM) Pathways for Rural Youth: Developing STEM Identity Through the Outdoors


University of New Hampshire

Project Leadership

Amanda Bastoni, Principal Investigator (PI), CAST
Sam Johnston, Co-PI, CAST
Andrew Coppens, Co-PI, UNH
Jayson Seaman, Co-PI, UNH
Janet Gronneberg, Project Manager, CAST


For questions about this project, please contact Amanda Bastoni.

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