The national movement of STEM Ecosystem initiatives are growing out of a decade of research into successful STEM collaborations, and works to nurture and scale effective science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) learning opportunities for all young people.

Since 2011, the STEM Co-op has specifically worked to improve the coordination of STEM learning and expand pathways for STEM experiences extending from early childhood to adulthood. Today, the STEM Co-op represents sectors throughout the city, including STEM-rich civic institutions, out-of-school time program providers, formal K-12 education institutions, colleges and universities, STEM corporations and business industry leaders, funders, policy makers and government entities, and existing learning networks. Project Exploration, a non-profit science education organization, is the backbone organization for the STEM Co-op.

The STEM Co-op is working strategically to support the development of a neighborhood-based STEM learning system in the Austin community. This includes working with partners and stakeholders to identify gaps, map assets and collect data on STEM learning opportunities at the local level.

On Wednesday, January 25, 2017, approximately 50 stakeholders from Chicago’s STEM ecosystem gathered at BUILD in Chicago’s Austin neighborhood to collaboratively continue the work of the STEM Co-op. This meeting aimed to address two primary questions:

  1. Are we educating students to compete globally in STEM?
  2. Why are we using a 20th century model for STEM learning in the 21st Century?

A key goal of the STEM Co-op is making science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) accessible, equitable, and applicable for all. Community members are identifying a need to apply STEM within their communities, and ensure that community members are prepared to take advantage of the many available jobs in STEM fields, particularly since STEM bridges ethnic and gender gaps. The mechanisms for realizing the potential of STEM to support social justice rely on the need for updated, community-based models for STEM engagement. Real learning takes place 24/7, cradle to career, and 21st-century STEM learning must reflect that. Additionally, all children need the requisite skills, and educators need PD and support to ensure that students have those skills. Chicago can and should be a major source of quality candidates for the growing pool of STEM careers, ensuring that diverse Chicagoans from all communities are reaping the economic and social benefits of STEM fields.

Erica Sweeney, Executive Director of Manufacturing Renaissance (MR) provided an overview of the work they have been do for the past 30 years. Currently at Austin College and Career Academy they offer students with hands-on opportunities. Key goals of MR are

  1. Rebuilding and modernizing the link between high schools and local economy;
  2. Growing the local talent network oriented in community-based workers, owners;
  3. Offering field trips, job shadowing, industry credential training (NIMS) internships, summer jobs;
  4. Providing leadership development, career coaching, dual credit, college counseling

A highlight of the MR presentation was meeting some of the people who participated in Manufacturing Renaissance’s program. Rene Kenney Plymouth Jr. struggled in school, but after being introduced to the machine shop he was hooked. Once a sophomore, he was able to work in the machine shop, and was captivated by the experience. “I felt like I could print my ideas,” he explained.

Rene took his experience and participated in a manufacturing competition, Skills U.S.A. He participated for the fun of it, and was surprised when he heard the announcement that he had won first place. The success convinced him that he was on the right track, and he realized this was a promising path. Rene is now making a difference to young people by being a mentor in the Manufacturing Renaissance program, and has long-lasting relationships with his mentors himself. He has found the experience deeply professionalizing and inspiring, and his journey wonderfully highlights the cycle of success cultivated by organizations in Chicago like Manufacturing Renaissance.

The Digital Youth Network’s Sybil Madison Boyd presented a summary of data collected by Chicago City of Learning that tracks and measures the numbers of preK-12 students participating in activities. As a baseline, 2016 data reveal that only 6.9% of all pre-K through 12th grade Austin CPS students have participated in OST opportunities vs. 12.4% of youth in Lakeview.

The meeting concluded with a fascinating examination of the development of Chicago’s STEM Learning Ecosystem through the lens of a “Wicked Problem” with Pamela Sydelko, Director of Argonne National Laboratory’s Systems Science Center. Pamela led a mapping activity that asked participants at each table to work together and identify challenges to delivering STEM programs from the stakeholder’s perspective.

During the process, it is important that all stakeholders are represented, and have the chance to provide their perspective and what they value within the issue. The ultimate goal is not to develop consensus, but to achieve a common understanding of the problem, pulling individuals out of silos so that a complex problem can be solved with all perspectives, skills, and knowledge available to be leveraged.

Through the activity, the group came up with several unique maps that could feasibly be used to explore possible avenues to drive the rapid growth of a youth-centered STEM Learning Ecosystem. The maps consisted of problem elements, which are components that are valued by the stakeholders of the problem, and interdependencies, which are interrelationships between problem elements.

The next step in the process will be exploring one of these models to understand the nature of the connected aspects of our unique STEM learning community, further cultivating our STEM Learning Ecosystem, one community at a time.

Written by: STEM Co-op Team

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