Cultivating a STEM Learning Ecosystem

A STEM learning ecosystem helps educators, parents, and other community players connect the dots between STEM learning that is formal (standards-based, in the classroom), with informal learning that students encounter every day after school, in community programs, and at home. But how do you create a thriving STEM ecosystem in your own community? If you’re thinking about building a STEM ecosystem, there are a few things you’ll want to consider.

Cultivating a STEM Learning Ecosystem

Every Ecosystem Starts with the Sun

You can actually think about the STEM learning ecosystem like any other: a community of living elements that must interact as a unit to thrive. And like any ecosystem, the STEM ecosystem has a sun – the life-giving, foundational, organizational element from which every other element draws strength and energy.

The sun is the K-12 classroom. It’s the energy fueling a chain of further learning. It’s where next generation STEM skills begin. But it’s also where, with cohesive, coordinated STEM curriculum that uses clear, consistent language across classrooms and schools, teachers and administrators can get in sync, nurture students' curiosity over time, equip students with the tools to solve problems, and work toward the same measures of success. This type of learning also helps students identify with STEM as they get excited and engaged in its practices, as structured hands-on learning helps their interest in science and engineering grow.

But the PK-12 classroom is only one part of the STEM learning ecosystem. Classroom learning can sometimes seem isolated. Connecting other learning opportunities to the foundations children get in school helps STEM come alive, deepening its relevance as a tool for young adults to answer questions and solve problems in their everyday lives.

Think Beyond the Classroom

The key to creating a successful STEM learning ecosystem lies in finding ways to use the same practices, processes, and language in school and in the world outside it.

Outside school hours, skills, practices, and processes taught in the classroom can be extended to after-school programs and wrap-around zone initiatives designed to deepen students’ STEM learning while also broadening horizons and sparking curiosity. For instance, robotics, science, or engineering clubs can adopt next generation STEM practices from the classroom. All benefit from using the same engineering design process and scientific methods taught in the classroom.

At home, equipping parents to connect with the STEM learning ecosystem is as easy as sharing simple techniques for extending science and engineering practices to home life. Offering parents a few great teaching tools to engage their children can nurture their creative, evaluative, and analytical thinking skills when school is not in session. For instance, schools can help parents learn the basics of higher order questioning and help students understand how to use the engineering design process to identify and solve problems with their student on the drive to school. Helping all parents play a supportive role helps strengthen the web of a STEM learning ecosystem, making learning engaging, important, and everywhere.

Get Inspired by What Works

Cultivating a STEM Learning EcosystemFrom the eastern seaboard to the west coast of the United States, in rural towns, suburbs and big cities, parts of the STEM learning ecosystem are emerging just about everywhere. Here are a few great ones to check out as you consider your role.

Girlstart out of rural Central Texas, an organization whose mission is to increase girls’ interest and engagement in STEM through innovative, nationally recognized informal STEM education programs.

The Chicago Museum of Science and Industry’s Center for the Advancement of Science Education, which engages students, families, teachers, and schools together to help youth make decisions about school and careers in the sciences.

SYNERGIES, a program serving the Portland, Oregon suburbs that, in its second year, is (among other things) tracking how community students, siblings, and adults seek out and utilize available STEM learning resources. Their goal: to help researchers visualize the complex dynamics of learning in the sciences and mathematics over the various available channels so they can be linked, strengthened, and improved.

Urban Advantage, a New York standards-based partnership program designed to improve students' understanding of scientific inquiry through collaborations between urban public school systems and science cultural institutions.

SHINE (Schools and Homes in Education), an initiative in its 13th year in rural Pennsylvania dedicated to linking schools and homes in education to build a strong social and academic foundation.

Establishing effective STEM classrooms is the first link in the chain of a STEM learning ecosystem, creating energy and language that can be shared with after-school program providers and parents at home.

What's the Key?

Start with a solid foundation – Next Generation Science Standards alignment and a toolkit of language that is complete and shareable – and not only will your classroom support STEM learning growth for every student in school, but also, everyone outside of school will soon be reinforcing your teaching.