In between locking up the Democratic nomination and pivoting to the general election, Hillary Clinton released a five-part Tech and Innovation Agenda. The plan sets forth a path to “create higher-paying jobs across the country, bring more people into the workforce, and reduce inequality.” However, this focus on science, technology, math, and engineering—or STEM—as the answer to the ills of America is nothing new. Promoting STEM learning has also been a fixture of President Obama’s administration, which has hosted events such as symposia on STEM for early learners and the White House Science Fair. Researchers continue to provide insights on how we learn foundational STEM concepts and how to best teach them. That we need better STEM education isn’t news; on the contrary, it is a truth nearly universally acknowledged by politicos and policy wonks alike. Also not new, however, is that, despite the best efforts and intentions of many at the national level, America is still falling behind other countries in STEM subjects.
Why? Perhaps because STEM solutions, like so much in education, are difficult to scale, which means that answers and solutions won’t come from national leaders, but from communities across the country that are already doing the work—and are already overlooked. Clinton’s plan doesn’t outline specific models because specific models will come not from a national policy platform, but from those on the ground watering the roots of STEM efforts. Theirs are the plans and practices that deserve our attention.
There has already been some movement in this direction: at a June 10th Congressional Briefing, several individuals currently leading successful local efforts—that is, effective community-based STEM programs—lent their insights to a discussion of STEM programming across the country. Despite being scattered across the country, these programs shared stories with similar obstacles. So, too, did their successes coalesce around a common approach: partnerships.
Rudo Kashiri, now a Program Manager for the Virginia Space Grant Consortium, recalls her experience partnering with schools as a NASA Explorer Schools (NES) Coordinator in Virginia. Despite the funding cuts that led NASA to dissolve the NES program, several former Explorer Schools are still successfully implementing the curriculum and practices they adopted during the program. Barrett Elementary in Arlington, VA is celebrating its 10th year committed to the NES approach. One of the program’s greatest strengths was an approach to partnership with schools that prioritized actually listening to them. Kashiri strongly believes the success of this partnership was fueled by “a genuine commitment to teachers—understanding that sometimes their hands are tied and they’re doing a million things. You need to listen to them and work with them to create buy-in for sustainability.”
It seems many teachers would agree. Elizabeth Petry, an educator who formerly worked closely with Kashiri, attributes much of her school’s success to high quality content and professional development—or, rather, development designed with those being developed in mind. She feels like the lessons and accompanying trainings were designed by “people who actually get teachers.” She also highlights that the partnership allowed teachers to connect with other NES affiliated educators and share resources—an experience most teachers rarely get in their busy schedules. Even now that the formal program no longer exists, Petry still communicates with the network she created.
Still others spoke to the benefits of designing programs with that partner with schools, educators, and families. Wendy Brenneman, Early Childhood Coordinator of the Carnegie Science Center in Pittsburgh, believes informal learning spaces like museums could function as anchors in communities. Brenneman highlights that informal learning spaces in communities are already natural hubs both for educators and families. From field trips and classroom visits to science nights, pre-K programs, and at-home activities, these spaces are uniquely equipped to meet community needs from multiple angles. Brenneman feels this has helped make the Carnegie Center’s partnerships with schools and families successful and advises that similar efforts “take time to make sure people are met where they are.”
Moreover, per Brenneman, partnerships are potentially powerful in overcoming the barriers many schools, communities, and providers encounter when working alone. Any efforts catalyzed by Clinton’s plan can learn how to overcome these barriers by listening to the experiences of local programs, like Brenneman’s. In Brenneman’s experience, the most pressing include funding, evaluation, and a general “fear” of science.
Perceptions of STEM subjects as insurmountably difficult or only meant for some people have contributed to a lack of confidence—that is, a fear—among students. Society has perpetuated a narrow conception of who participates successfully in STEM, leaving many students out of the pipeline. These students ultimately don’t see themselves in STEM careers, which is one factor contributing to the current lack of diversity in the lucrative tech workforce. The pool of students who feel they are STEM capable and see themselves pursuing STEM careers is simply not deep or wide enough.
Unfortunately, Brenneman also notices this “fear” among parents and teachers in her programs. But she believes that, through meaningful partnership, spaces and places like museums can help students, parents and teachers see themselves as natural scientists—learning about the world around them through inquiry and hands-on activities.
And while the Tech and Innovation Agenda already includes funding to upstart new local efforts, partnerships could help ensure that funding goes further by pooling resources, expertise, and the hard, heavy work of evaluation. Often, program providers are required by funders to evaluate their programs for student-level outcomes. When children and youth are in a program or classroom for a short amount of time each day, it can be very difficult to isolate the exact impact. Partnerships that allow for information sharing and joint evaluation could help organizations better understand their programs and schools better understand their students and teachers.
Ultimately, Clinton’s agenda, like many preceding STEM initiatives, is rightfully optimistic about American innovation—and to put a pragmatic emphasis on tech and science. It is common sense to focus an entire leg of her agenda to education in order to build the skills and knowledge necessary to achieve her vision. But people who share that vision are already on the ground doing the work, and a national vision needs to be turned to recognize and support them if American STEM is to succeed.