STEM Learning Ecosystem

No matter how good the teachers in a school are, they operate under two constraints that limit their ability to provide an excellent STEM education to all students.

First, the school is designed to provide instruction in seven or eight subjects including lunch, and all in six and a half hours. There is little time for anything other than a series of classroom experiences. Field trips are of necessity rare. This is a problem for learning any subject because more learning time is better, and even better is more time in a variety different settings so that the learner can see it as something more than information in a textbook. Immersion programs for learning languages provide an excellent example. Students who have classroom instruction in a new language and then are able to practice it extensively in a variety of contexts will likely become better speakers and writers in the language than the students who had classroom only with home work instruction.

Second, the formal school years begin at age five. It is well known that what has or has not happened between birth and entry into school matters very much. We also know that children from economically disadvantaged families are behind their economically advantaged peers in measurable ways. In a study (The 6,000 hour gap), by age 12 children from poor families are likely to have 6,000 fewer instructional hours than their more affluent peers who have had summer camps, family vacations to different states and even countries.

So addressing these issues requires finding ways to expand the variety of contexts for learning and adding to the time; that is, giving children additional experience with the content and processes of STEM.

Well, much of that work has already been done. There are museums, science centers, summer science programs, and after school programs.

What is missing is a way to put those resources; that, is home, formal, and informal educational contexts, into a form that will enhance a child or youth’s opportunities to learn.

What might such a solution look like?

In their study( Working Paper: How Cross-Sector Collaborations are Advancing STEM Learning) Kathleen Traphagan and Saskia Traill, identified 15 such programs across the country. The authors describe them as “learning ecosystems.”

While the 15 models differ in a variety of ways, they share a common structure. Each includes the child’s home, the school, an after school or summer programs, and a lead “STEM-expert organization like a museum, science center, or university.

For example, the AfterZone Summer Scholars program in Providence, Rhode Island, the Providence Afterschool Alliance and the Providence Public Schools along with environmental, botanic garden, arts, engineering, sailing, and museum community groups, runs a four week STEM summer program for 500 middle school students. The programming happens in the field and promotes the building of STEM skills in the participants.

The experiences are led by teaching teams that consist of a community based STEM educator, a teacher from the Providence Schools, a Providence After School Alliance youth development specialist. The team co-develops the curriculum that connects math learning in the students’ schools to the field research projects the students conduct during the summer.

According to the Noyce study, there are three elements that each of the 15 programs possessed: the school district leadership appreciates the value of collaboration with other learning organizations, a robust network of informal educational organizations, like after school programs, museums, and science centers, and highly competent STEM-expert organization that can provide provide resources such as professional development to those providing the instruction and facilitation of a the activities.

As the working paper makes clear, the creation of a STEM learning ecosystem is a solution but one that requires a great deal of skill and the creation of a robust system with a number of crucial parts. Building capacity in all of the educators, finding a way to ensure that there is a strong planning component so that the work that is done in the school classrooms are supported by the field investigations. It is not enough to have units of study; these units need to be built on the foundation of learning progressions that deepen a child’s interaction with STEM content over time. The activities need to be sharply focused on authentic inquiry, project- and problem-based learning that is connected to the world. All of this will require that the broader community is knowledgeable and understanding of the demands of such a system and that there is broad support for its workings.


Kathleen Traphagan & Saskia Traill. How Cross-Sector Collaborations are Advancing STEM Learning, Noyce Foundation, February 2014


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