Project Profile

Virtual Access to STEM Careers (VASC)


This project will advance efforts of the Innovative Technology Experiences for Students and Teachers (ITEST) program to better understand and promote practices that increase students' motivation and capacities to pursue careers in fields of science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (STEM). To meet the diverse needs and future demands of a STEM workforce, national initiatives have highlighted the importance of encouraging students from underserved groups to explore STEM careers. This project, called Virtual Access to STEM Careers (VASC), investigates a problem-based learning curriculum designed to remove some of the traditional barriers that prevent underserved students from participating in authentic STEM learning opportunities. Focused on grades 3-5, VASC employs a range of activities in Immersive Virtual Environments using multiple platforms and in different interaction modalities to meet the needs of schools which lack the resources and infrastructure to invest extensively in costly technologies. The strategic emphasis placed at the elementary level underscores the importance of preventing "a crack in the STEM pipeline" when transitioning to middle school level coursework where research indicates students who once had interest in a STEM career often lose interest. The first phase of VASC focuses on STEM career exposure in marine, geological, and computer sciences. To capture learner curiosity, students will investigate the life cycle of the loggerhead sea turtle, a species that nests widely on North Carolina beaches and is currently listed as Threatened under the Endangered Species Act. The sea turtle is a wonderful and powerful model for building the VASC learning platform because during their lifespan, they travel great distances (thousands of miles during migrations) and experience a wide range of physical and chemical ocean conditions, as well as substantial ecological interactions with numerous marine plant and animal species. Thus, understanding the life cycle of a sea turtle exposes young learners to numerous STEM applications as well as the careers of those that investigate and protect sea turtle populations. Students will also take on the roles and responsibilities of different STEM occupations "in the field" as well as in the "lab" when engaging in the problem-based learning model.

Goals for this project include 1) developing virtual technologies using input from conservationists, scientists, and the educational team, 2) constructing a STEM curriculum that is accessible to underserved populations, and 3) implementing an iterative assessment process of the curriculum which will allow for testing and retesting modifications effectively and efficiently. Researchers aim to advance Situated Cognition Theory through combining Problem Based Learning and Immersive Virtual Environments as an innovative pedagogical model to effect change. In order to test the efficacy of the VASC curriculum, the following research questions will be examined: (1) What learning experiences involving emerging technologies effectively enable diverse populations of students to gain familiarity and relevant competencies with these technologies, and what factors influence the outcomes of the learning experiences? and (2) What culturally-responsive instructional and curricular practices and models used by teachers enhance student understanding of and interest in STEM occupations and what factors influence the outcomes of the practices and models? The research team of science education, special education, and computer science faculty from the University of North Carolina Wilmington works closely with community stakeholders including Bald Head Island Conservancy, Fort Fisher State Recreation Area, and MarineQuest which serves as an educational outreach program situated at the university. This partnership is equipped to provide the necessary real-world examples of STEM careers, programming to engage participants, and locations to inspire curricular, technological, and experimental development.

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.


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Principal Investigator(s)


Award Number
Project Duration
2019 - 2023
University of North Carolina at Wilmington, .
Project Work State
Target Gradespan(s)
Elementary school (K-5)
Project Setting(s)
Formal Education
Informal Education
Geographic Location(s)
Project Status
Computer and informational technology science
Target Participants
Youth / students