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STEM learning across settings: Cultivating learning ecosystems

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STEM learning across settings: Cultivating learning ecosystems

There has been a lot of talk recently about learning across settings and constructing or cultivating “ecosystems” for learning.  This refers to the notion that there are many influences and supports a young person draws on; when we put the learner at the center rather than the institutions where learning might occur, we see that schools, while crucially important, are not the only player in this system.  While the notion of such “learning ecosystems” has been around for many decades, it's gaining renewed attention as we try to truly rethink how we approach (STEM) education improvement.  Afterschool programs are very much at the heart of this debate. 

As part of my work to highlight the potential of afterschool programs as partners in STEM education, I have been part of a few recent efforts to increase the discussion of this idea.  We hope that we can foster a robust debate and change some of the policies and funding streams to allow such ecosystems to thrive.  But first, we have a lot of work to do to think through what this might look like and what issues we need to consider. 

Recently, I served on the organizing committee for a meeting that the National Research Council and the STEM Funders Network hosted in Irvine, California, on this topic.  Titled “STEM Learning is Everywhere,” it intentionally brought together funders, policy experts, researchers and practitioners from both the formal and informal learning settings.  The recently-released Advancing STEM Learning Through Collaboration: STEM Learning Ecosystems Report provides examples of programs and cities where such cross-sector collaborations are occurring and provided fodder for discussion at this meeting.  We discussed various aspects of the issue—what allows such collaborations to thrive and what are the challenges, both perceived and real?  What do we need in addition to a strong leader?  What would assessment look like for such a system?  How do we ensure that schools and out-of-school-time programs can partner without losing their soul and compromising the things that make them strong in their own right?

As one of the participants colorfully described it, ecosystems in nature are messy and diverse and evolve—these are necessary attributes we have to maintain in a learning ecosystem as well.  We have to provide room to try things and fail and not be too rigid and risk-averse.  There are many questions to sift through but I am excited that we are finally having a real debate about this. 

Very soon after the meeting in Irvine, I participated in a session at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting in Chicago.  In a session titled “Creating an ecosystem for science learning in and out of school,” my co-presenters and I discussed the need and evidence for including out-of-school-time programs as integral partners in STEM education and why the time is now right for such partnerships.  With rapidly expanding infrastructure and deep thinking about outcomes and assessments in such settings, afterschool programs are truly poised to fully exploit their potential for exciting and engaging young people about STEM fields and careers.  The session was very well-received and generated a lot of interest and discussion.

Collaborations are not new to afterschool programs and providers; we may indeed argue that they are at the heart of most strong afterschool programs (see for example, our recent issue brief on partnerships!).  There are many cities in which the mayor has promoted strong afterschool systems that don’t put the onus on young people to figure out what opportunities exist for them and how they can take advantage of it.  The AfterZone in Providence, Rhode Island, for example, provides middle school students with year-round access to a variety of programs offered by 70 community-based organizations.  The key to success is a coordinated schedule with coordinated transportation and snacks provided. The Nashville After Zone Alliance is a partnership with Metro Nashville Public Schools to develop a coordinated system of free afterschool programs for middle school students organized by geographic zones.  The cradle-to-career civic infrastructure approach of the StriveTogether Network, initially launched in Ohio and Kentucky, has now spread to 37 states and the District of Columbia.  The Harlem Children’s Zone is another high-profile example of the amazing results we can produce for young people when a community works together.  

Cities and communities are already coming together to cultivate these ecosystems.  We need to figure out how we can grow more such systems all over the country and ensure that STEM learning opportunities are a part and parcel of these efforts.  I am greatly looking forward to continuing this conversation and acting on it so we can put the young person at the center and organize our efforts to help all young people grow into successful adults.

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