Communities Come Together to Support STEM Education

STEM Ecosystem Graphic
Diagram created by the Department of Education for the purposes of
illustrating the potential anchor organizations of a STEM learning ecosystem.

Cultivating a creative workforce that is ready to step into science, technology, engineering and math (STEM)-related fields is vital. Students need technical knowledge in these subjects, as well as critical-thinking, problem-solving, and analytical skills; these tools will prepare them for tomorrow’s jobs. But it’s not just schools that are thinking about how best to engage students.

Last week, the White House hosted the first gathering of the STEM Learning Ecosystems Initiative, a new initiative designed to bring STEM to life for young people in real-world, high-quality and engaging ways. A STEM learning “ecosystem” creates connected learning opportunities for students throughout their community, both within and outside of school.

“There is a need for everyone committed to STEM education to come together,” said STEM Funders Network co-chairs Gerald Solomon, executive director of the Samueli Foundation, and Ron Ottinger, executive director of the Noyce Foundation. “Our students need to experience STEM learning in a coherent and connected way. These 27 communities are joining together in their communities and also learning across contexts to support STEM learning for all.”

Modeled after several successful cross-sector STEM collaborations, this new initiative was launched by two-dozen philanthropies and companies that are part of the STEM Funders Network. Each STEM ecosystem is anchored by local organizations and individuals, such as: Pre-k–12 school systems; colleges and universities; STEM-rich institutions, such as museums; out-of-school learning centers; and businesses. Educators, experts, parents, and others also work together to integrate STEM activities into kids’ daily lives. For example, in Providence, Rhode Island’s AfterZone Summer Scholars program, teams consisting of a community-based STEM educator, a district teacher, and an afterschool youth development specialist co-develop and co-teach a collaborative curriculum focused on environmental science that connects STEM and math skills with hands-on field research.

The 27 communities selected to be part of the first cohort of STEM ecosystems are receiving financial and technical assistance, along with expert coaching to strengthen their work. They are working towards increasing the number of youth pursuing STEM interests across settings, the number of Advanced Placement courses in STEM subjects taken and exams passed, increasing the understanding among parents and guardians of the requirements and pathways linked with pursuing STEM careers and increased self-identification of students with the STEM fields.

Linda Christopher, executive director of the Orange County (CA) STEM Initiative, said the new initiative has helped teachers across grades, schools, and districts share ideas and best practices and plan together.

“We are tired of silos. If there is a middle school teacher and high school teacher in a district, both teaching science, and they have never met each other, that’s not good,” she said. “Educators need these opportunities to work together without giving up their originality.”

Xan Black, program director of the Tulsa (OK) Regional STEM Alliance, said Tulsa’s coalition helps organize about 150 programs and events a year. She said they range from free summer camps, to one-time events, to teacher professional development sessions. These events are made possible through collaboration among their nearly 100 member organizations, including professional organizations, educational institutions, foundations, business, industry and non-profits.

She said a favorite event they sponsor, with support from the American Institute of Architects Eastern Oklahoma chapter and the Tulsa City-County Library, is a building contest for a model gingerbread house that combines design, engineering, and math. “If it’s just a problem set in my Algebra II book, a student might be more likely to say, ‘Who cares?’ That’s not going to happen with these activities. They are so excited to do them,” Black said.

Last Thursday the Ecosystem leaders were able to connect with each other to support their shared goal of bringing together local communities in support of STEM learning for all students. The participants discussed issues such as STEM and equity, family engagement, and connections between in- and out-of-school programs. “Forging connections between learning contexts has tremendous potential to impact STEM education nationwide,” said Ellen Lettvin, senior Noyce fellow at the U.S. Department of Education. “We are excited to see this initiative launch and look forward to seeing these communities prosper.”