October 2021: It Takes a Village: Using the Concept of “Learning Ecosystems” to Improve STEM Engagement

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The concept of STEM Learning Ecosystems has been advanced over the last decade to describe the various designed and natural settings and opportunities for STEM engagement within geographically-defined areas. STEM Learning Ecosystems acknowledge that learning can occur in many settings, and that individuals’ learning pathways connect these settings as part of a person’s total engagement with STEM. The concept has been used to make visible the STEM leaning assets of communities, and it serves as a means to encourage closer cooperation between key actors and stakeholders within communities who are involved in formal and informal STEM education. View Synthesis >>

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It Takes a Village: Using the Concept of “Learning Ecosystems” to Improve STEM Engagement

 

Recorded: Oct. 27, 2021 at 3:00 PM EDT

Description: In this Online Panel we will provide examples of STEM Learning Ecosystems, explore how the concept has been used to foster connected learning and discuss research on and through STEM Learning Ecosystems.


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Discussion

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Public Discussion
  • October 27, 2021 | 07:02 p.m.

    I enjoyed serving on the panel today and hearing so many interesting perspectives about STEM learning ecosystems. One area that we didn't have a chance to discuss relates to how to measure the health/functioning of an ecosystem, or changes in an ecosystem over time. For example, one measure might be the number and diversity of STEM resources or the level of connectedness of different sectors of the ecosystem. I would be curious to hear how others have dealt with this issue.

  • Icon for: Leigh Peake

    Leigh Peake

    October 27, 2021 | 08:17 p.m.

    Great topic, Nancy! We've been influenced by the Hecht & Crowley work (2019) and their use of measures of the health of ecological systems. They talk about youth as an "indicator species" but we've chosen to go a level up and think about educators and their sense of connectedness as an "indicator" of the health of these ecosystems. That's focused our evaluation team's attention away from youth for the time being, and instead doing surveys and interviews with educators. TBD whether that approach proves profitable!!

  • October 28, 2021 | 10:07 p.m.

    Nancy knows since she was first author: In our evaluation of Oregon STEM Hubs we used an online survey designed to assess the development and health of the local STEM communities. The questionnaire was based on the notion of healthy and productive collaboration for a common purpose, and it asked stakeholders who represented organizations that were part of the Hubs about progress, culture, voice, contribution, etc.  That is, we focused on the nature of the network. You can find it here:

    Staus, N., Preston, K., Keys, B., & Storksdieck, M. (2019). Taking Stock of Oregon STEM Hubs: Accomplishments and Challenges: An Evaluation Report Prepared for the Oregon Department of Education. Oregon State University. https://doi.org/10.5399/osu/1123

    Alas, each of the 13 Oregon STEM Hubs run their own specific evaluations, focused on different outcomes that they locally determined as important to them. I think one of the big questions is whether STEM Ecosystems are being conceptualized and realized as collective impact organizations, or simply assets for STEM engagement that more people ought to know more about and that should as best as possible coordinate their efforts.

  • Icon for: Leigh Peake

    Leigh Peake

    October 27, 2021 | 08:22 p.m.

    I'd love to continue the conversation begun in the chat about how we are all thinking about interest-driven pathways. During the panel I suggested that in rural communities it is really hard to build an infrastructure that can support any/all interest-driven pathways. At least not until we've "greased the wheels" for educators and organizations to work together fluidly. It seems to us that asserting a compelling topic as a starting point can forge a network of connections and pathways that eventually can serve other more interest-driven pathways. Climate change and climate justice are so compelling for youth today, that it is super rare for us to find a youth who can't/won't engage with that topic. But we would love to hear from folks who have figured out other approaches and recognize that ultimately helping youth discover and pursue their own interests is critical!

  • October 31, 2021 | 07:30 p.m.

    Leigh, 

    The interest-driven pathways change direction with the local ability to aid individuals to stretch to their understanding of future skills. I don't think that set missioned driven sites can "grease the wheels of educators" and effectively stretch to reach the fast transition necessary to fill this gap rural locations.  You are missioned focused and responsible to your boards.  Youth have grasped the "climate change and climate justice terms" to connect with long term sustainablity based on a learning pathway that they see relevent to  their experience...before they plan a visite beyond their locaton.   These pathways have to include online support that is flexible and scales constantly back to their topic of interest....not remain in the mission of sites.  

    To reach the climate  change and climate justice topic at the sustainable requires relevancy and flexibility.  They will engage...but will they remain and develop agency?  This requires documenting that small steps with cohorts separate from the pressures of formal edcation are valuted by someone....who?   First consideration is to allow them the space to develop the timing.    Yes, this also means not just youth.   

  • Icon for: Leigh Peake

    Leigh Peake

    November 1, 2021 | 08:14 a.m.

    I guess we have to agree to disagree! We are locally driven including definitions of relevance, definition of timing, etc. "Will they remain and develop agency" -- I'll report back in 4-5 years and let you know how it goes. 

  • November 2, 2021 | 08:30 p.m.

    I don't think we have to disagree at all.  I am working in a community and under that broader definition. I recognize that this topic is intended to work out the span between the "it takes a village" to the broader emerging linkages of a "learning Ecosystem".  Leaping from the smaller focus of village to the current "ecosystem" is hard enough. Finding an agreement on "interest" not to mention the new "ecosystems" with technology means folks that have been working a long time in one aspect have a unique opportunity...and obligation to refocus. How can that happen?

    Why do we all have to wait 4-5 years to hear some views as "agency" or "relevance" are very flexible terms?  Has our design on recognizing them not moved with the idea of STEM?  Are we not able to take a discussion technology like this and find the opportunity to think this through?

  • November 3, 2021 | 01:48 p.m.

    Betsy, I am not entirely sure I understand your comment fully, but here are two points I might add: "How can that happen", you ask, and I think that is precisely why STEM Hubs and other forms of "managed ecosystems" exist, to help stakeholders (including educators) not only what all the possibilities are for connected learning, but also facilitate collaboration. That might often just involve a small subset of stakeholders, like we did when I did climate shows in our planetarium and worked with the local nature center on a combined program that first introduced the (global) science of climate change in the planetarium, and then had the students visit the nature center right afterwards to explore in hands-on fashion some strategies to address climate change locally.

    In terms of waiting 4-5 years: clearly, there are more short-term outcomes one can focus on, but some behavioral ones (in terms of educational or career pathways) one indeed needs to wait until people had a chance to act. And yes, I think they are also assessing those. But it does provide us with a hefty question: how far out do we feel we might impact people?

  • Icon for: Tony Perry

    Tony Perry

    October 28, 2021 | 02:46 p.m.

    Thank you for this engaging webinar yesterday! I am wondering left wondering about the STEM ecosystems infrastructuring. The discussion brought up that, while OR funds these hubs, the types of accountability measures were not necessarily aligned with a true ecosystems approach. How should we think about the trade-offs and benefits of specific funders and their interests in STEM learning ecosystems?

  • October 28, 2021 | 10:09 p.m.

    Hi Tony, and thanks for joining the discussion. Can you say more about the idea of trade-offs and benefits?

  • Icon for: Tony Perry

    Tony Perry

    October 29, 2021 | 07:22 a.m.

    It seemed like different funders would bring different priorities to the work. In the OR example, the state brings a lot of legitimacy to the work but the kinds of measures of success and two-year budget cycles in the political arena brought a new set of challenges to the work. I also imagine that it took some visible STEM hub success in OR before state was willing to financially support them. I know that there has been some effort to bring major philanthropic funders together around collective action such as the STEM Funders Network (http://stemfundersnetwork.org/) and philanthropic efforts have a lot more freedom to be creative and flexible around what they fund and the kinds of measures of success they use. However, the existing literature indicates the "fickleness" of outside funding and when it goes away so does the expertise to support the funded work. I am thinking about the role of the funder, their assets, and how the tensions different approaches to funding might bring to ecosystems work.

  • October 29, 2021 | 05:28 p.m.

    Thank you for clarifying, Tony: I couldn't agree more with your sentiment here. It was wonderful that the STEM Funders Network invested into STEM Ecosystems (and now there are 94 supported globally), but there are always issues attached to funding. Alas, the brilliance was (just like in the Oregon STEM Hub example) that someone invested into institutional or organizational infrastructure - yeah for recognizing that communities need backbone support!  The funding cycle for STEM Hubs did indeed cause some anxiety. When your backbone structure faces 2-year or so renewal cycles, you start wondering about sustainability too much. Interestingly, state funding continues even as the initial model was to use state funding to get the machinery in place, and then rely on local support for continuance. The ecosystem should fund itself... which doesn't work because it is hard to negotiate across many stakeholders your way out of the commons and public good problem.  So: stable support from enlightened parties seems to be essential. The question is: how much power to determine the agenda comes with public or philanthropic support?

  • October 28, 2021 | 10:14 p.m.

    I was intrigued by the discussion of cultural brokers. There were different perspectives expressed on the usefulness and effectiveness (and even the terminology) around "brokers" and "brokering". Some have tried the idea in the past and struggled, others are applying it now. Some doubted whether someone can do this versus having us all become brokers or people who understand the local learning ecosystem, can maneuver it, and therefore can advise others on how to do this. We are working on a portal we called ScienceNearMe.org (not really live yet) that tries to play this role. Alas, we also wonder what it takes...

  • October 31, 2021 | 07:37 p.m.

    Cultural brokers is a hard term to feed into an interest driven project. An effective system starts small.  The ecosystems for STEM have been driven by national perspectives on groupings that drive topics and economics.  Why to we keep trying to label them "learning" before allowing the system to become "eco"?  I can understand that " science near me" sounds like the way to progress from educational structure but does it struggle from isolation from the other domains and structures that support varied enties?

  • November 1, 2021 | 12:41 p.m.

    We struggled with how to call the portal: are we providing an exchange between those who offer activities and events and those who seek them only in the domain of science?  Should we call it STEM?  Even then, is this how people are looking for opportunities?  Or are they looking for something engaging and interesting to do, with only mild preferences around content?  At the end of the day, we opted to start from a core (science), in hope that people have a very generic and broad understanding of what this stands for, and maybe later we can expand.  

  • November 2, 2021 | 11:05 a.m.

    Martin,

      Thank you for expressing the process of moving into true STEM.  I’ve felt that I’ve been waging this battle for years and getting the answer from this type of discussion forum is a huge step forward for those of us who can’t wait for the 4-5 years for the evidence from science developed projects that Leigh offers.  

    We’ve been working hard to look at were we integrate STEM to be fair and equitable to all which means looking at whatever we call a “portal” (used to be a pipeline) in a different way that you described so well.  How can we call “looking for something engaging and interesting to do” something positive?  When does this practice..that we all get into at some point in our lives…build agency with those involved?   How do we offer opportunities to find that “FLOW”(Csikszentmilhalyi) that includes science topics but not requires replication….or competition…to be valued? 

  • November 3, 2021 | 01:52 p.m.

    Betsy, yes, these are issues we would like to address: help people in their journey by making it easier for them to do the next thing.  That seems so trivial at first, but I think it helps tremendously by lowering barriers to engagement.

  • November 3, 2021 | 01:53 p.m.

    Betsy, yes, these are issues we would like to address: help people in their journey by making it easier for them to do the next thing.  That seems so trivial at first, but I think it helps tremendously by lowering barriers to engagement.

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Related Resources

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Publication: stemecosystems.org

Launched in Denver in 2015 at an international global conference, the STEM Learning Ecosystems is a Global Community of Practice with extensive sharing of resources and expertise among leaders from education, business and industry, non-profits, philanthropy and others.

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This study examined the dynamics of the STEM interest and participation pathways of three youth in an under‐resourced, urban community. These three cases offer insights into how youth with a strong interest in a STEM topic or activity perceived the resources that were available to them in a STEM learning ecosystem and highlight the affordances and constraints each faced in pursuit of their interests.

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