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)


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