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Research: Utilizing Personal Relevancy to Motivate Minority Youth in Learning Technology Skills

Location: Posters; Level 3, Skyline Ballroom Pre-function, Table 36

Participate and share

Participate and share : Poster

Tuesday, June 26, 10:30 am–12:30 pm
Location: Posters; Level 3, Skyline Ballroom Pre-function, Table 36

Shawn Fraine   Katrina LaCombe  
To increase motivation to learn computing among a population underrepresented in technology careers, our project has paired content that students are interested in (e.g., their community history and environment) with web mapping, digital audio editing and coding. We'll share how maximizing personal relevance can enhance students’ technology learning.

Skill level: Beginner
Attendee devices: Devices useful
Attendee device specification: Smartphone: Windows, Android, iOS
Laptop: Chromebook, Mac, PC
Tablet: Android, iOS, Windows
Focus: Digital age teaching & learning
Topic: Computer science and computational thinking
Grade level: 6-8
Subject area: Career and technical education, Computer science

Proposal summary


We are using personal relevance as a theoretical framework. For this study, relevance is defined as “.. the perception that something is interesting and worth knowing” (Roberson 2013). Studies have linked student motivation and engagement to the relevance of the topic they are learning (Frymier & Schulman, 1995; Martin & Dowson, 2009; Roberson, 20013). Relevance theory posits that we all have a cognitive need to make sense of the world and that a teacher can more easily convey their intentions to students by making the topic relevant (Wilson & Sperber, 2004). While this theory has existed for over a decade, further exploration of what makes a topic relevant to students is needed. We will use this theory to guide our data analysis and discussion of results.


This is a case study using qualitative methods. The case is a group of five students participating in a technology-focused out-of-school time program situated in their community. The program teaches African American students in grades five through ten how to use a variety of technology tools in community-based research projects. This group of participants was selected because they showed particularly higher interest and engagement throughout the project in comparison to other groups. Participants have been involved in the program for a time ranging from one year to three years.
Two main types of qualitative data will be collected. We will conduct in-depth semi-structured interviews using questions designed to gage student interest in technology and project content. We will also ask about motivational factors related to program and project participation. Some examples of questions that will be asked include:

What did you enjoy doing the most?
What did you learn about your topic?
What information did you personally research after
completing the activities?
What computer program did you enjoy the most?

Interviews will be audio-recorded and transcribed for analysis. In addition to interviews, we will examine the students’ final project in the program, a digital exhibit that integrates smaller technology projects (e.g., podcasts, virtual neighborhood walking tours, and project websites) created by the students throughout the program.
We will conduct a thematic analysis of the interview transcripts. Student responses will be analyzed to find patterns and themes concerning what they found most relevant, interesting, and motivating. We expect to find connections between content relevance and student interest in and use of technology. We will analyze students’ final exhibit to see what information students chose to include and how they used technology to educate the public about their community. This artifact paired with the interviews will give insight as to what students found motivating and relevant in their work.
Preliminary analysis of student interview data supports a connection between content that is personally relevant to the students and a high level of student interest and engagement in the project. For example, this student described building an informational website about his city’s environment:
“They are teaching us how to build a website, but it is an
informational website. My group has environment and we are
trying to get a way to make the environment better. You know,
it is about the trees, we need trees... But there are a lot of
abandoned places, or places that need houses or homes for
everyone. And we are wondering why they are not there... Like
is it the money? Is it the soil? Is it buildable...? ”
For this student, investigation into the environment of his local neighborhood sparked many other questions about the issues that might underlie the environmental problems in his community. Also, some students felt motivated to educate others within their community about what they were learning. This student describes her growing knowledge about her own city:
“...I have been here all of my life, and there is probably a lot
of people who lived in East St. Louis and probably don't know
half the things that we're learning about East St. Louis. And it
would probably be good for them to learn all of this stuff but
they can't....”
This student sees a value and importance to what she is learning about her own community.
For both these students, investigating a topic that had personal relevance--the environmental issues in their own community--was an interesting and valuable activity for them, inspiring them to ask more questions and to share their learning with others.
During the final session of the program, we will follow up on these preliminary findings by conducting in-depth interviews with this group of students, establishing them as a case among the larger program participants. In addition to the interviews, the group’s final project will be analyzed for content and technology use. It will also serve as a focal point for part of the interview as students describe what they chose to include and leave out and how telling a story that was personally relevant to them impacted their interest in technology. We expect that that learning about the environment in their own community will be a primary factor in why they were motivated to continue to work on the project and their why interest level was high.


Research indicates that STEM education in out-of-school time positively impacts student interest in these subjects (Young, J. R., Ortiz, N. A., Young, J. L., 2017). This project has given a group of minority youth an out-of-school learning opportunity in computer science and environmental techniques based in their own urban community. Participants also became involved with other citizens’ experiences, for example by conducting oral history interviews with residents living in senior housing. By introducing STEM activities to the youth through topics important to them, we anticipate that students will become more interested in their community and in STEM, which will lead to long-term involvement in both. Furthermore, in learning how STEM applies to many different types of careers, participants should develop an increased awareness of the range of possibilities for their future.


This study will make an important contribution to the growing body of research examining how best to bring minority groups into STEM fields and also has potential implications for how technology and computing is taught in urban settings. Through analysis of student responses and artifacts, researchers are seeking to identify what parts of this program most resonated with the students. These findings should be helpful to technology educators who would like to develop curricula and programs that are highly relevant for their students.


Alexander, P. A., & Jetton, T. L. (1996). The role of importance and interest in the processing of text. Educational Psychology Review, 8(1), 89.

Frymier, A.B., & Schulman, G.M. (1995). “What’s in it for me?” Increasing content relevance to
enhance students’ motivation. Communication Education, 44, 40-50.

Hulleman, C. S., & Harackiewicz, J. M. (2009). Promoting interest and performance in high school science classes. Science, 326(5958), 1410-1412.

Mitchell, M. (1993). Situational interest: Its multifaceted structure in the secondary school mathematics classroom. Journal of Educational Psychology, 85(3), 424.

Roberson, R. (2013, September). Helping students find relevance: Teaching the relevance of
course content can help students develop into engaged, motivated, and self-regulated learnings. Retrieved from

Wilson, D., & Sperber, D. (2004). Relevance theory. In L. R. Horn & G. Ward (Eds.), The
handbook of pragmatics (pp. 607-632). Oxford: Blackwell.

Young, J.R., Ortiz, N.A., & Young, J. L. (2017). STEMulating interest: A meta-analysis of the effects of out-of-school time on student STEM interest. International Journal of Education in Mathematics, Science, and Technology, 5 (1), 62-74.

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Shawn Fraine, Washington University in Saint Louis

Shawn is currently pursuing an M.A. in Clinical Psychology at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. His research interests primarily focus around the topic of sexual trauma, particularly within the LGBTQ population. Currently he is looking at resilience factors within the transgender population and their role as protective factors against revictimization.

Katrina LaCombe, Southern Illinois University Edwardsville

I am a graduate student at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville studying Art Therapy Counseling. I work with a variety of ages and populations, helping people communicate and clarify their thoughts and feelings utilizing art. I am also a research assistant for the STEM center on campus where I help collect and analyze various types of data.

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