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The parent who showed up for everything is now the crusader for families – The Interdisciplinary Science Engineering Partnership (ISEP) in Buffalo, NY has a strong track record of involving families in STEM initiatives



When Joseph Gardella’s two children were students in the Buffalo Public Schools, he and his wife were the parents who showed up for everything and made sure their children were getting what they needed from school.

Gardella, however, realized then that not all parents had the ability nor the inclination to be engaged in their children’s education.

It was that experience as an engaged parent, coupled with the knowledge that he gained from helping form and chair a parent advisory committee, that has inspired a significant focus for the Buffalo-based STEM Learning Ecosystem, known as ISEP (Interdisciplinary Science Engineering Partnership.)

Family engagement is at the heart of all of the work of ISEP and played a key role in how the ecosystem came into existence.

ISEP programs are:

  • Designed with families; and
  • Created to give families a sense of ownership and empowerment in their student’s lives.

Gardella said a key practice is to pay families for their participation in various initiatives.

“So if we ask parents to advise us, we pay them a stipend for each meeting; or if they showed up and participated, they got $50,” Gardella said.

Families are aware that universities receive funding for initiatives and when they are expected to participate and not be paid, Gardella said, it creates distrust and a feeling that they are not equal. 

“We have low income families that are really struggling and it’s important to treat them like everybody else on the project that’s getting paid. My mantra is everybody gets paid,” he said. “It is just a matter of equity. Parent involvement is seen as getting some kind of equity in the organization.” 

He said that data shows that there is less family engagement in high poverty areas. “You know that lower rates of engagement are certainly wrapped up with poverty. But poverty isn’t destiny,” he said.

Gardella said other ways that ISEP enables family involvement is to provide child care and transportation. He said that ISEP also works with churches and community centers to identify family engagement opportunities.

All of those were lessons that I learned in my days of parent involvement and working in the community,” he said. 

And it was part of what he said was a personal mandate. “I would have felt like I was rejecting what got me involved in working with the district in the first place if I didn’t include the work that I did as a parent-leader in our projects,” he said.

He said he was expecting pushback from NSF reviewers concerning the idea of awarding stipends to parents. “And there was no pushback at all. In fact, the response was more surprise in that family stipends had not been seen often.”

Gardella said one of ISEP’s biggest breakthroughs happened when the university’s informal partner, the Buffalo Museum of Science, which is located in a historically African-American neighborhood, began offering free memberships to families. 

In addition to paying parents, the idea surfaced to give families a free membership to the museum to encourage them to come to meetings and the museum.

Gardella said ISEP holds many of its meetings at the museum because families don’t mind coming to it. “It’s accessible to the community for a number of different reasons. A museum can’t flunk you like a school can,” he said.

“After giving free memberships and stipends for families participating in meetings, suddenly, the museum started enrolling more kids into their summer programs. A new standard was built within the community,” he said. “We also provided funding for ISEP kids to attend the museum summer programs so families didn’t have to pay for their summer camps.”

Career counseling with families

Gardella said ISEP places a large emphasis on career counseling and works extensively with families to provide such services, including home visits to discuss career options for the children.

“We work with families to identify what the job opportunities look like. We also weave in a communication and involvement component so the family knows, ‘their kid will get a heads-up on job opportunities,” he said.

Federally funding for strong family involvement

Despite ISEP’s strong track record, Gardella said few others have picked up on the strategy of involving parents. He said he is not aware of any other NSF-funded initiatives that carry such a strong family engagement commitment.

“I have never seen a parent involvement plan in an NSF grant that I’ve reviewed,” he said. 

Awarded in 2011, ISEP’s first National Science Foundation (NSF) Math Science Partnership (MSP) initiative included a family involvement plan as part of the $10 million project funding for the four ISEP Core Partners: the University at Buffalo, SUNY, SUNY Buffalo State College, the Buffalo Museum of Science and the Buffalo Public Schools.

Gardella remembered the responses from the NSF reviewers on the 2011 grant: “The reviews were really exceptional because they said ‘we’ve never seen a parent engagement plan or anything close to a plan. This is really unusual. And it’s a good idea.’”

That first NSF grant was followed by a current NSF ITEST grant, a US Department of Education grant and more then 10 NSF Early Career awards to young faculty who are engaged in ISEP related activities.  Several other grants are also being drafted.


  • Programs and initiatives must be designed with family members and not for them.
  • In order to be true partners in initiatives, family members must be compensated for their time if expected to contribute and if others are being paid.

Interdisciplinary Science Engineering Partnership (ISEP)

The Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering Partnership (ISEP) is led by the University at Buffalo, a member of the State University of New York system, and includes as core partners the Buffalo Public Schools, Buffalo State College and the Buffalo Museum of Science. Supporting partners include Praxair Technology, Inc., Roswell Park Cancer Institute, Hauptman-Woodward Medical Research Institute, the Western New York Service Learning Coalition, and the Buffalo Public Schools District Parent Coordinating Committee.

The focus of ISEP is the critical middle school experiences of students in science and engineering as they transition to high school. The project utilizes an innovative approach to teacher professional development among 12 high-needs urban schools (including “feeder” middle schools and their corresponding high schools) via courses and interdisciplinary research experiences, development of science and technology classroom materials that are aligned with state science learning standards, and inquiry-based curricula. The ISEP also combines novel mentoring approaches and expanded professional learning communities to build leadership and resources for improving science education in high-needs/high-potential urban schools. The learning communities cultivate mentoring relationships involving middle and high school teachers and students, University at Buffalo and Buffalo State College STEM faculty, education faculty, undergraduate students and graduate students, volunteer STEM professionals, and/or parents.