Skip to content

Issue: Lifelong STEM Engagement


As museums are key partners in ensuring Americans’ lifelong engagement in STEM, we urge Congress to:

  • support federal agency efforts to ensure all Americans have lifelong access to high quality STEM education;
  • fully fund and authorize museums to participate in STEM engagement and informal STEM education programs across Federal science agencies, including the National Science Foundation (NSF), National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the National Institutes of Health (NIH), as well as the Departments of Agriculture, Defense, and Energy;
  • include opportunities for public engagement as part of agency research programs with significant public interest and ensure that museums are eligible to compete for related awards;
  • fund the following programs at levels that exceed inflation-adjusted levels from recent years: NSF’s Advancing Informal STEM Learning (AISL) program at $75 million, NOAA’s Office of Education at $38 million, NASA’s Office of STEM Engagement at $150 million and Science Mission Directorate’s Science Engagement and Partnerships Division at $48 million, and NIH’s Science Education Partnership Award (SEPA) program at $25 million[1];
  • regard museums and other institutions engaged in informal STEM education as vital components of the STEM education ecosystem, including by ensuring that such organizations are eligible for relevant Federal funding opportunities and represented at appropriate conversations convened by Federal agencies;
  • ensure that museums have the opportunity to compete for funds related to facilities improvement to address areas including public health, sustainability, and energy efficiency, including opportunities available to schools and other educational institutions;
  • support the Department of Education in its efforts to support and promote STEM learning through multiple offices, including its interagency partnerships with the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), National Park Service, NASA, and NOAA; and
  • support IMLS in its priority areas of STEM and Making and its partnership with the Department of Education’s 21st Century Community Learning Centers program.


Museums, science centers, zoos, aquariums, botanical gardens, and other cultural institutions have an important role to play in increasing the understanding of, and engagement with, science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) among people of all ages. Museums are a part of the larger STEM learning ecosystem, working in partnership with schools, higher education, industry, and other community-based nonprofits to support people throughout their lives. In this brief, we use the term “lifelong STEM engagement” as it captures the diversity of museums’ STEM activities—it includes early STEM learning; PreK–12 STEM education, both formal and informal; family engagement in STEM; as well as adult learning, workforce preparation, and community dialogue and deliberation on scientific issues.

Many federal agencies have significant funding programs that museums utilize for STEM education and engagement initiatives. These programs provide an opportunity for the museum community to deepen connections with Federal agencies by working in partnership to build strong foundations for STEM literacy among all Americans; increase diversity, equity, and inclusion in STEM and provide all Americans with lifelong access to high-quality STEM education; and prepare the STEM workforce for the future. There are additional opportunities to expand funding and support for the museum community by growing relationships with Federal agencies who have a need to engage the public in consideration of scientific issues (i.e. expanding beyond education and outreach-focused programs, offices, and divisions).

Talking Points

  • Lifelong access to quality STEM education and learning opportunities prepares American citizens for careers of the future and informed civic decision-making; this is becoming even more important as Americans are increasingly asked to consider scientific guidance and make personal decisions based upon scientific information.
  • Each year, hundreds of millions of Americans of all ages and backgrounds visit and/or participate in educational programming offered by museums, science centers, public gardens, zoos, aquariums, and other similar cultural institutions.[2]
    • Many of these institutions are among the most visited cultural institutions within their community and region, providing jobs and economic development.
  • Museums spark interest and activate learning through educational exhibitions, thought-provoking collections, public dialogue and deliberations, and hands-on, experiential programming.
  • Today, museums partner with and receive funding from a variety of Federal agencies, contributing to agency missions to engage Americans in STEM, seed tomorrow’s workforce, and connect the public with current scientific research.
  • Federal funding supports a wide variety of institutions, from rural nature centers to suburban museums to urban zoos and aquariums, supporting multiple goals, including:
    • Evidence-based STEM engagement within the institution and out in the community—from programs in K–12 schools to partnerships with military installations and Native American reservations.
    • Research on effective STEM learning in informal environments, particularly for populations underrepresented in STEM fields and from underserved communities.
    • Museum-based scientific research that makes major original contributions to the understanding of important issues such as climate, biodiversity, and the history of life, enriches exhibitions and programs and engages students and the public in current research.

Background on Federal Agencies’ STEM Engagement Work

NSF: The Division of Research on Learning in Formal and Informal Settings (DRL) within the Directorate for STEM Education (EDU) is currently an important source of support for museums to research learning in informal education settings and has historically funded the development of innovative exhibitions, programs, and outreach models. Relevant programs within EHR/DRL include Advancing Informal STEM Learning (AISL), Innovative Technology Experiences for Students and Teachers (ITEST), Discovery Research PreK–12 (DRK12) and more. The NSF Directorates for Biological Sciences, Geosciences, and Social, Behavioral & Economic Sciences have all supported museums in the areas of field and collections-based research, collections improvements and digitization, database development, and educational programming. The new Directorate for Technology, Innovation, and Partnerships, given its focus on use-inspired and translational science, is significantly grounded in the intersection of science and society, including a variety of opportunities for public engagement with science. Through the Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program, museums involve undergraduate college students in field and laboratory research. Finally, the broader impacts criterion for all NSF awards requires consideration of the benefits to society, including in areas of education and science engagement.

NASA: The Teams Engaging Affiliated Museums and Informal Institutions (TEAM II) program[3] and its new Community Anchor Awards within NASA’s Office of STEM Engagement and the Science Activation program within the Science Mission Directorate’s Science Engagement and Partnerships Division directly support museums and museum networks. In addition, the Museum & Informal Education Alliance offers an important community of practice that provides informal educators—including those in museums—with access to NASA resources.

NOAA: Two programs within NOAA’s Office of Education—the Environmental Literacy Program and Bay Watershed Education and Training (B-WET) Program—help zoos, aquariums, science centers, and museums bring real world examples of science to students nationwide. Other NOAA offices have community outreach, public engagement, and citizen science initiatives and programs.

NIH: The Science Education Partnership Award (SEPA) program builds relationships between the biomedical research community and educational organizations—including museums—that improve life science literacy. In addition, there is growing awareness of the importance of public engagement as a core aspect of several major initiatives that intersect with societal interests and public concerns, such as the BRAIN Initiative and the All of Us Research Program.

Other Federal Agencies: The Department of Energy, Department of Defense, and U.S. Department of Agriculture are among the other agencies that have STEM workforce development programs and which could benefit from strengthening public engagement in science that could be expanded in collaboration with museums.

Funding History of Select Informal STEM Programs:

The budgets proposed by the Biden–Harris Administration have generally been supportive of programs of interest to the museum community. Amounts in the table below[4] are in millions.

* No less than.
** Environmental Leadership Grants were not called out explicitly in FY 17–21; budget provided for those years is for the Education Program Base, which includes ELGs.
*** The NIH SEPA program has not been called out explicitly in the Conference Report for the past several years.


[1] In FY 2018, the Conference Report stated that SEPA receive not less than $19.5 million, a number based on the FY 2017 level “plus the proportional share of the general increase provided to NIGMS.”  Minimum SEPA funding levels were not included in the FY 2019 and FY 2020 Conference Reports, but If SEPA were to have been similarly granted proportional increases to the NIH budget in those years, FY 2021 funding would be $22.5 million.

[2] See the 2019 report, Encountering Science in America, from the American Academy of Arts and Science:

[3] TEAM II is formerly known as the Competitive Program for Science Museums, Planetariums, and NASA Visitor Centers (CP4SMPVC).

[4] Primary source of budget numbers:

[5] (In the “Funding History of Select Informal STEM Programs” chart) Directorate for Education and Human Resources (EHR) was renamed the Directorate for STEM Education (EDU) in 2022.


Supporting Letters and Testimony

» Lifelong STEM Engagement Printable PDF

» See all Policy Issues

AAM Member-Only Content

AAM Members get exclusive access to premium digital content including:

  • Featured articles from Museum magazine
  • Access to more than 1,500 resource listings from the Resource Center
  • Tools, reports, and templates for equipping your work in museums
Log In

We're Sorry

Your current membership level does not allow you to access this content.

Upgrade Your Membership

Subscribe to Field Notes!

Packed with stories and insights for museum people, Field Notes is delivered to your inbox every Monday. Once you've completed the form below, confirm your subscription in the email sent to you.

If you are a current AAM member, please sign-up using the email address associated with your account.

Are you a museum professional?

Are you a current AAM member?

Success! Now check your email to confirm your subscription, and please add to your safe sender list.