‘Learning ecosystems’ provide formal and informal learning in science, technology, engineering and math
Reprinted from U.S. News and World Report, November 24, 2015
In science there are multiple variables that can affect the results of any one experiment as scientists work to prove or disprove a theory – whether it’s the number of participants in a study or the temperature of a room when mixing chemicals. In the same way, there are many factors that impact the path of a child’s future success.
Encouragement from all parts of the community – families, teachers, mentors, neighbors – early on in a child’s life is essential to sparking interest and building ability for a rewarding career. With the right encouragement and supports, a curious child can go from building a rocket in his backyard to becoming an aerospace engineer.
Young people can and should experience this type of learning, commonly known as STEM learning, everywhere. Now in communities across the country, STEM “learning ecosystems” – where in-school and out-of-school programs, organizations, and businesses join forces to provide formal and informal STEM education – are being built to do just that.
Growing up in Cleveland, David was bounced from home to home, sometimes living on the streets. Early on he struggled in school, particularly in STEM subjects – where he found himself bored and easily distracted. But his school counselor saw that David needed support to succeed in his education and thought he could find it by applying to a program where he would be immersed in the subjects he struggled with most.
David was advised to apply to MC2 STEM, a high school in the Cleveland Metropolitan School District – linked to the Northeast Ohio STEM Learning Network. At the school, one of 27 STEM learning ecosystems in the country, students are provided with an integrated STEM curriculum informed by real-world experiences where they attend classes at campuses embedded in businesses and school-based sites around the city, including the Great Lakes Science Center, General Electric Lighting’s Nela Park campus and various college campuses.
At MC2 STEM, David focused on engineering. Then, when it came time to apply for college, he shared his educational journey in The Huffington Post, where he wrote, “it is not impossible to fly, all I needed was a better cape. I developed my cape through engineering, but it is important to remember to help kids find their passions because at just the right height and elevation level, they too will fly.”
STEM learning ecosystems are the wind beneath the capes for young people like David. They provide the conditions to make it possible for kids to soar.
Just as an ecosystem depends on each and every plant and animal that makes up the system to thrive, STEM education depends on in-school and out-of-school learning playing their unique roles in a connected way. STEM learning must be cross-disciplinary and integrated along all learning platforms. It is only through thoughtful and strategic planning and collective efforts that young people will be able to fully engage in true project-based immersive learning experiences that stimulate their interest, enthusiasm and engagement in STEM learning and jobs.
Now more than 350 local funders and organizations are working to build more Ecosystems like the one in Cleveland, with the goal of creating 100 city and regional STEM networks over the next five years. This multi-sector collaboration kicks off this week at the White House as 27 inaugural STEM ecosystem communities form a new community of practice, with more than $20 million in funding, and a goal of reaching more than 600,000 teachers and students in its first three years.
As a result of this effort, more young people like David and those that have been historically under-represented in STEM – including girls, low-income youth, minorities, and students with disabilities – will have the opportunity to access high-quality, diverse and inter-connected STEM learning experiences. They will have the ability to experience the joy of learning and the rewards of persistence through unhurried opportunities to tinker, experiment, and explore. Success will be measured by the educational paths we’ve created for our young people that build complex skills, including how to design and test solutions to real-world problems, work with adults and peers, and test out their own leadership capabilities.
STEM learning ecosystems provide a way to connect our community resources to grow new opportunities for young people to succeed and experience the many moments in their education that lead them to finally declare, like David, “I’m an Engineer!”
Ron Ottinger is executive director of the Noyce Foundation. Gerald Solomon is executive director of the Samueli Foundation.