The driving principle behind the STEM Learning Ecosystems Initiative is that every young person should have access to a rich ecosystem of connected learning opportunities—in and out-of-school—in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). These Ecosystems are cultivated through cross-sector partnerships, which may include preK-16 schools, after-school and summer programs, science centers, museums, corporations, non-profit organizations and more.

It started in 2015 with 27 Ecosystems focused on building regional networks for education. Since then, not only have 29 more Ecosystems been added, but the Initiative is also fostering a thriving Community of Practice where ideas are tested and shared from Ecosystem to Ecosystem. This rich exchange of practical information benefits students who are interested in STEM disciplines and builds a well-prepared workforce that is equipped for the evolving job market.

One example includes the STEM Bicycle Clubs, a successful program designed and implemented by STEM Learning Ecosystems’ Greater Cincinnati STEM Collaborative. “The clubs build STEM confidence while supporting students to have a fun learning experience,” says Mary Adams, Program Manager of the Collaborative. “The program is a raging success, with the region now offering more than 20 STEM Bicycle Clubs. They’re really on a roll!”

The Cincinnati Ecosystem codified the curriculum and other resources, and, by sharing this framework, the program has now been adopted by the Northeast Florida Regional STEM2 Hub and the Mayes County STEM Alliance in Oklahoma, with other Ecosystem communities working on implementation as well.

In the Bicycle Clubs, students participate in project-based learning experiences through which STEM skills and the engineering design process are modeled, as they break down and reassemble a bicycle, solving problems and discovering math and science principles at work. This program is an example of best practices being shared among distant STEM Learning Ecosystems that have similar community needs.

The Chief Science Officers (CSOs) program is also experiencing widespread adoption as a result of STEM Learning Ecosystems. It provides a way for youth to be immersed in the development of educational activities in and out of the classroom. CSOs are students who are elected by their peers to be ambassadors for STEM and innovation. The vision of the program is to “create and sustain a STEM culture where student voice impacts society.” In an environment where adults normally dictate the decisions, CSOs elevate the student voice in school and community STEM discussions.

“It’s great to have a directed place where we can identify and recruit organizations that are the right fit to take on the CSO program,” says Jeremy Babendure, Ph.D., Executive Director of the Arizona Technology Council Foundation and the founder of the CSO program. “Over the past year, we’ve made great connections with other Ecosystems at the in-person Convenings. We have also brought some of the teenaged CSOs to the meetings, so they can discuss their experience with attendees. The Ecosystems Initiative is the perfect place to not just talk about this national coalition, but to build it along with other Ecosystems.”

“It might sound simple to connect regional partners, but there’s a lot more involved than just exchanging business cards at a networking lunch,” says Jan Morrison, founder and CEO of TIES, the Teaching Institute for Excellence in STEM, whose Design Studios™ are the foundation of regional Ecosystem work. “Creating systemic change requires deep consideration of the role of each partner in addressing regional and national learning and workforce priorities. Then, these changes must be successfully integrated into the classrooms “

The number of Ecosystems has grown in North America, with international expansion on the immediate horizon. Meanwhile, the STEM Learning Ecosystems Initiative is seeking additional communities that would like to improve their collaborative effectiveness as part of the Community of Practice described above. Applications will be accepted from now until May 1, 2018.

A variety of discussions focused on STEM Learning Ecosystems were included at the U.S. News STEM Solutions Presents: Workforce of Tomorrow conference. “Developing a national workforce skilled in science, technology, engineering and math is a complex task, but at its heart is one fundamental goal: jobs,” says Brian Kelly, Editor and Chief Content Officer of U.S. News. “As we have sharpened our focus to address the pipeline into STEM careers and workforce development, we have recognized the quality work being done by STEM Learning Ecosystems. The Ecosystems have a wealth of applicable knowledge to share with the wide range of attendees at the Workforce of Tomorrow Conference.”

At the Opening Keynote Session on Thursday, April 5, STEM Learning Ecosystems co-founders Gerald Solomon, Executive Director of the Samueli Foundation, and Ron Ottinger, Executive Director of STEM Next, discussed the objectives and architecture of the Ecosystems. Additional opportunities to learn about model Ecosystem work were offered, from Workshop Wednesday to a Friday breakfast roundtable and a Wall of Work detailing specific programs. Ecosystem members also made several presentations throughout the conference.

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