STEM Ecosystems: Connecting Learning Opportunities Across Communities

STEM Ecosystems: Connecting Learning Opportunities Across Communities

Where do young people in your community have opportunities to charge up their excitement and skills in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM)?

If you were to make a list, school would likely be at the top, followed by field trips to the science museum or zoo, after-school robotics programs, nature-focused summer camps or part-time jobs with tech companies.

If your community is more rural than urban, you might list summer job opportunities in agriculture, landscaping or fisheries. Or perhaps a local university offers internships in its research labs for high school students.

No matter where you live, though, young people are using smartphones and other devices to learn online, whether downloading astronomy or bridge builder apps or playing video games that hone logic and design skills.

Now, if you were to make a second list naming all the ways these learning opportunities are connected to each other, this new list would likely be quite short. Schools, universities, afterschool or summer programs, science centers, and the private sector are mostly working in separate ways to engage kids in STEM learning.

This disconnect results in missed opportunities for teachers, afterschool leaders, and STEM mentors to learn from each other and engage more kids in STEM. Troublingly, this disconnect also means that engagement patterns that exclude at-risk kids from learning experiences are frequently reinforced instead of changed.

Too often, young people are left on their own to realize that the building blocks of knowledge and skills taught in one place will enable them to pursue a passion they discovered in another. As a result, many kids never realize they have what it takes to pursue a challenging and rewarding STEM career, while employers continue to struggle to fill high-paying STEM jobs with local talent.

But what if communities intentionally cultivated connections among all the disparate organizations and people who teach, mentor, coach, and encourage STEM learning in their communities? Across the country, 27 communities are doing just that, as part of STEM Next’s STEM Learning Ecosystems Initiative. The STEM Learning Ecosystems Initiative kicked off at the White House last November and is surging forward with 350+ local funders and organizations and $20 million in local and national funds.

A new initiative planned for summer 2016—in the Cincinnati, Ohio region—is a great example of what the ecosystems approach looks like. Using a $5,000 seed grant from the ecosystems initiative, the Greater Cincinnati STEM Collaborative has raised an additional $80,000 in local support to launch the Summer of STEM. For the first time ever, local youth providers will work together to ensure that under-served and un-served children participate in high quality STEM summer learning. Community-based organizations, municipal parks departments, and schools who can reach kids will partner with STEM-specialist programs and teachers, combining their expertise to benefit kids most in need of new opportunities. At the same time, Cincinnati’s leaders will build public awareness and support for the importance of STEM learning. The result: kids and families charge up their STEM interest and skills over the summer, setting themselves up for an excellent school year next fall.

The ecosystem initiative has developed tools and collected resources to help the 27 pilot communities— and any other interested community—to move forward. A research team at the University of San Diego is evaluating early impacts, and the communities will gather for their second national meeting this March, in Chicago. Ultimately our goal is to cultivate ecosystems in 100 cities and regions, involving 600,000 educators and students, over the next five years.

We hope scaling this effort will contribute to a paradigm shift among STEM education stakeholders nationally—a shift that makes connecting across sectors instinctive, rather than extraordinary. It will take more innovations in practice, new research, and policy changes to get there. And when we do, the vast increase in the number and diversity of young people charged up for STEM learning will be well worth it.