Blog for October 2021: It Takes a Village: “Learning Ecosystems” to Improve STEM Engagement

Posted by: Dr. Martin Storksdieck on October 18, 2021

STEM Learning Ecosystems: A Theory to Strengthen Connected Learning


A report titled Identifying and Supporting Productive STEM Programs in Out-of-School Settings (NRC, 2015) introduced the notion of a STEM Learning Ecosystem as a foundational framework for understanding the intersection of formal and informal learning. The concept is loosely based on developmental psychologist Urie Bronfenbrenner’s ecological systems theory which describes child development within the context of the total social, physical; and institutional environment of a person, and expands the idea to all learners across the lifespan, and all settings in which someone might encounter STEM learning opportunities.


STEM learning ecosystem models consider learning an ongoing, lifelong process that is distributed across community settings (Traphagen & Traill, 2014), takes place across varied physical, social, and cultural contexts (Bevan, 2016), and helps to shows pathways for learners across contexts and time to understand all factors and experiences that influence (STEM) learning (Falk et al., 2016; 2017). STEM learning ecosystems take into account all the learning and STEM-related resources in a community, such as designed settings (e.g., schools, museums, workplaces), naturalistic settings (e.g., parks, backyards), networks of people (e.g., STEM professionals), and everyday encounters with STEM (e.g., conversations) (NRC, 2009; 2015). The 2015 NRC report encouraged thinking systemically about STEM learning by fostering partnerships across a learning ecosystem, and by making it easier for learners to make connections between various STEM learning experiences.


The concept of STEM learning ecosystems suggests not only that STEM learning occurs everywhere and all the time, it also requires us to consider how learning is connected across time, space, and opportunity. Learners currently “curate” these connections themselves, since most informal STEM learning settings—if they are designed settings—tend to see themselves as isolated “islands,” or even competitors to others in the ecosystem, rather than mutual stepping stones for continued, lifelong, and connected STEM engagement. Creating learning ecosystems for STEM education, therefore, constitutes a shift from an institutional focus to a learner focus. The key idea that emerged from the research literature on how best to support learning was to build on, nurture, support, expand, and actively manage a STEM learning ecosystem that is learner-centered. The needs and interests of learners in learning ecosystems are being supported by a variety of STEM rich opportunities, including school, digital and other media such as websites or magazines, STEM activities at home such as building things or outdoor exploration, STEM rich institutions in the community such as science centers, and organized out-of-school STEM organizations such as science clubs. Instead of asking what individual organizations can or should do in isolation of others to support a STEM learner, the focus lies on collective impact of all organizations that support learning of individuals within their local contexts. Figure 1 shows one example for how to visualize the concept. In this case it positions a statewide field trip program in Maine called LabVenture into the potential learning ecosystem of a student.

Figure 1: STEM Learning System that positions LabVenture, a statewide field trip program run by the Gulf of Maine Research Institute. Adapted from STEM Learning Is Everywhere: Summary of a Convocation on Building Learning Systems. National Research Council (2014). Washington, DC: The National Academies Press


Networks that Support STEM Learning Ecosystems

The idea of STEM Learning Ecosystems has garnered major institutional and funder support. In order to support greater local cooperation between formal and informal STEM educators, the STEM Learning Ecosystem network was founded in 2015 with the goal to foster sharing of resources and expertise among leaders from education, business and industry, non-profits, philanthropy and others ( Financially supported by the STEM Funders Network, the network has grown to 94 local partnerships selected from across the Globe. Designed as a global Community of Practice, each local STEM Learning Ecosystem defines its own focus, but the overall goal is to connect students to ecosystems and the pathways they create so they connect what they learn in and out-of-school with real-world learning opportunities, leading to STEM-related careers and opportunities.


One of the 94 members of this Community of Practice are the Oregon STEM Hubs. Starting in 2013, the State of Oregon created and grew a statewide network of regional STEM Hubs as a means to provide institutional support to STEM Ecosystems, with the goal to foster economic development through highly synergistic STEM learning. STEM Hubs are regionally-focused, multi-sector partnerships that unite schools, universities, non-profits, businesses, civic leaders and other members of communities in local STEM. STEM Hubs are implementing strategies that include (amongst others) educator professional development on best practices in STEM instruction; in- and out-of-school, hands-on STEM learning experiences for students; and connections to fast-growing STEM employment opportunities in Oregon. But most importantly, STEM Hubs are creating connections between programs and organizations within a region, and in doing so they contribute to individual program and organizational success, and promote local collaboration towards collective impact. Research on STEM Hubs indicates that investments into backbone structures and programming by the state have been instrumental in making the STEM Hubs communities of practice focused on providing rich STEM learning opportunities for all.


This month’s webinar and discussion will explore how STEM Learning Ecosystem can be fostered and sustained, what their contributions might be for STEM learning, and what opportunities they might provide for new research. Panelists include Deb Bailey, STEM Education Specialist at the Oregon Department of Education who can speak to the STEM Hubs as Oregon’s way to make STEM Learning Ecosystems the key mechanisms for fostering STEM innovation; Nancy Staus, a Senior Researcher at the STEM Research Center at Oregon State University who can report on exciting and myth-busting findings that emerged from research done as part of a highly defined STEM ecosystem, and Leigh Peake, Chief Education Officer at the Gulf of Maine Research Institute who can speak to a systemic statewide field trip program that led to a research-to-practice project to explore STEM learning ecosystems in Maine.


We have put together a playlist of six videos from the STEM for All Multiplex that represent various ways in which the concept of a STEM Learning Ecosystem has been used to guide formal and informal education and research, to highlight connections and local partnerships aimed at expanding STEM learning opportunities, or to rethink field trips as means for connected learning. We hope that you will join in this month's webinar and discussion. Register Now!



Bevan, B. (2016). STEM learning ecologies: Relevant, responsive, and connected. Connected Science Learning, 1. Retrieved from


Falk, J. H., Dierking, L. D., Staus, N. L., Wyld, J. N., Bailey, D. L., Penuel, W. R. (2016). The Synergies research-practice partnership project: a 2020 vision case study. Cultural Studies of Science Education, 11, 195-212.


Falk, J.H., Storksdieck, M., Dierking, L.D., Babendure, J., Canzoneri, N., Pattison, S., Meyer, D., Verbeke, M., Coe, M. & Palmquist, S. (2017). The learning SySTEM. In R. Ottinger (Ed.). STEM ready America. Flint, MI: Charles Stewart Mott Foundation.


National Research Council (2009). Learning Science in Informal Environments: People, Places, and Pursuits. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.


National Research Council (2015). Identifying and Supporting Productive Programs in Out-of-School Settings. Committee on Successful Out-of-School STEM Learning. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.


Storksdieck, M. (2006). Field trips in environmental education. Berlin, Germany: Berliner Wissenschafts-Verlag.


Traphagen, K., & Traill, S. (2014). How Cross-Sector Collaborations are Advancing STEM Learning. Palo Alto, CA: The Noyce Foundation.



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