Monthly Archives: July 2014

The STEM Ecosystem, Part 1

We all know that STEM education matters. No argument there! The question is how can we make it happen?

While the formal K-12 educational system is what we think of first for STEM learning, we know that kids can learn about STEM in other informal settings such as at museums, zoos, and after-school programs.

If even a fraction of the activities and experiences that occupy much of the other 81.5 percent [of students’waking hours] could be coordinated with the education they receive in school, students could emerge from their K-12 years much better prepared…(STEM Learning Everywhere: Summary of a Convocation on Building Learning Systems)

What does it look like when the formal and informal educational opportunities brought together?

“STEM ecosystem”is a term coined by the authors of a Noyce Foundation funded study to describe what emerges when educational entities such as schools, after-school programs, science focused organizations, and communities, collaborate to provide “a rich array of STEM learning experiences for young people in out-of-school settings.”

The authors describe their use of the term “ecosystem”as metaphoric, because the metaphor “captures key concepts of this broader vision: diverse, individual actors interconnected in symbiotic relationships that are adaptive and evolve over time.”

What makes a natural ecosystem function is that its various elements all benefit while the system also prospers. While some zebras are eaten by lions, enough are able to reproduce to sustain the herd, and the herd’s grazing keeps the grasses of the savannah healthy.

Likewise, the STEM ecosystem appears to work because while the participating organizations are creating a STEM-rich learning environment for the children, each of the partners continues to enact its own particular goals. In the words of the study, the relationship among the collaborators is symbiotic; that is, the partners thrive because the collaboration itself thrives. Parents may gain deeper insights into the strengths of their children by seeing them in the context of a summer science and math program or teachers may deepen their understanding of the nature of science by their interaction with museum docents.

The centerpiece of the study is the set of brief portraits of fifteen programs that have created STEM ecosystems along with a set of recommendations for those interested in developing such collaborations along with challenges.

The study identified three keys to successful collaboration based on evidence from the fifteen programs:

  1. A K-12 school system lead by people who appreciate the value of collaboration with informal educational entities;
  2. A vigorous after-school program or other network that has both the competence and credibility to work with a variety of educational groups such as parks and museums; and
  3. A “strong STEM-expert institution, such as a science center, museum, corporation, or university that can provide essential resources like professional development for in- and out- of-school educators and hands-on STEM experiences for students and families.”

In Part 2 we will look more closely at the origins and possibilities of a learning system built on the concept of social ecosystem.

References and Resources:

Noyce Foundation Working Paper: How Cross-Sector Collaborations are Advancing STEM Learning


Steven Olson and Jay Labov, Rapporteurs (2014). STEM Learning is Everywhere: Summary of a Convocation on Building Learning Systems. National Research Council. National Academies Press. Washington: D.C. (Prepublication Copy: Uncorrected Proofs. Tuesday, June 3, 2014)


Part 2: Exploring the Ecosystem View

Different environments produce discernible differences, not only across but within societies, in talent, temperament, human relations, and particularly in the ways in which each culture and subculture brings up the next generation. Uri Bronfrenbrenner.

In Part 1 we looked at the findings from the Noyce Foundation’s review of creating rich STEM learning ecosystems through collaborations among formal education, out-of-school science programs, and science-expert organizations.
The review’s authors used the term “ecosystem” as a metaphor to make clear the importance of the complex ecosystem-like interactions among the collaborators.
In part 2, I want to argue for using the concept of the ecosystem as more than a simple metaphor because the concept of the biological ecosystem provides a powerful analytical tool for understanding educational change.
The concept of the ecosystem in biology emerged from the realization that individual organisms must be studied in relationship to the reciprocal interactions among one another in the context of the abiotic environment.
At first, the small patch of woods with its many kinds of plants, its birds singing, and insects flitting about appears to be static. It will look the same tomorrow and the next day. But viewed from the lens of the ecosystem, the seeming static wood becomes transformed into a dynamic set of interactions: the singing birds are defining and defending a territory, some of the insects are fertilizing some of the plants, while the Redtail hawk is transforming a white-footed mouse into hawk.
To look at The Noyce review through the ecosystem lens is to see it as about an ecosystem but with two different magnifications; the first view is of the social ecosystem shows the interactions among the formal and informal educational organizations as well as the science-expert organization, while the second magnification focuses on how children and young people learn science and how that can be supported by certain kinds of connections.
For example, in the human development ecosystem model, we can see
how the combination of the interactions among the formal (K-12 classrooms) and the informal (after school and other out of school experiences) will help children “build complex skills, including how to exercise their own agency, solve real-world problems, build relationships with adults and peers, and test out their own leadership and teamwork capabilities as they experience STEM learning connected across different environments. (Traphagen & Traill, p. )
The same sort of insights emerge when looking at the the level of the organizations. The fifteen profiled STEM learning environments are thoughtfully constructed to account for what is known about the roles of parents in learning, the importance of creating the capacity of all the educators to understand STEM education, linking what happens in the K-12 classrooms with the out-of-school learning opportunities, the importance of inquiry, project-based learning, and real-world connections, and so forth.
To think about the kinds of changes that are going to be needed if we are going to be successful in building a robust STEM system, thinking about it in terms of “ecosystem” is thus a powerful way to think about the problem of improving STEM learning.
In an article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, Bloom & Dees identify some specific advantages to use the ecosystem lens. The ecosystem model can
help map resource flows into and within the system, revealing constraints, bottlenecks, and underused resources;
identify new operating partnerships;
develop different operating models for different ecosystems, or a more robust operating model that works in a variety of different ecosystems. (Bloom & Dees, pp. 52-53.

Resources and References

Traphagan, Kathleen and Saskia Traill. “How Cross-Sector Collaborations are Advancing STEM Learning.” The Noyce Foundation Working Paper. California. 2014

Studying the School as Ecosystem
Stevenson, Harold W. and James W. Stigler. The Learning Gap: Why Our Schools are Failing and what we can Learn from Japanese and Chinese Education. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992.

Studying Social Ecosystems:
Bloom, Paul M. and J. Gregory Dees. Cultivate Your Ecosystem. Stanford Social Innovation Review. December 2008. pp. 47-53.

Studying Human Development Ecosystems
Bronfrenbrenner, U. (1994). Ecological models of human development. In International Encyclopedia of Education. Vol. 3, 2nd Ed. Oxford. Elsevier. Reprinted in: Gauvain, M. & Coles M. (Eds.), Readings on the development of children, 2nd Ed. (1993, pp. 37-43). NY: Freeman. Found online at