On both days of the convocation, breakout groups met to consider particular issues and opportunities for collaboration among the informal, afterschool, and formal STEM education sectors. The topics they discussed were
- alignment of learning opportunities and creating cross-sector collaboration among schools, afterschool programs, and informal science education providers;
- innovations in pre-service and educator professional learning arising through cross-sector collaboration;
- assessment of student goals for STEM learning systems;
- online learning technologies in promoting collaboration and cross-sectional learning communities; and
- joint funding and policy solutions for cross-sectional collaboration and implementation.
In plenary sessions after each breakout session, reporters appointed by each group summarized the group’s main conclusions. In some cases, topics were discussed in both breakout sessions, while in other cases just a single breakout group considered the topic.
The breakout group on alignment identified three major themes, said Rich Rosen, senior practice leader for STEM system design at the Teaching Institute for Excellence in STEM in Cleveland Heights, Ohio.
The first theme was that all parts of the STEM learning system have a common vision, which one breakout group defined as a focus on youth development. This common vision gives the sectors a shared goal on which they can base exchanges among themselves.
The second theme was the importance of infrastructure. An extensive infrastructure that can support collaboration already exists, said Rosen. To implement something new, pieces of the necessary infrastructure likely already exist, and the breakout participants noted “there’s no reason to layer a new infrastructure on top.” Instead, asset mapping of the existing infrastructure could identify resources that are already available.
The third theme was the need to develop a common language. In particular, if the sectors were able to agree on goals and measures, such as a badging system for STEM achievement or the development of inquiry skills, all parts of the learning system could be focused on these goals. Intermediaries can help different sectors communicate and collaborate without confusion over terms, according to the group’s discussions.
Given these three themes, the group discussed two ideas to move from talking to doing, Rosen stated. The first is to build on the activities of individuals and organizations that communities already value and trust. The second is not to plan an activity all the way to the end but to get it started and then let it develop organically. “Let the process not be a one size fits all,” said Rosen. “Let the process unfold, and see which things naturally bubble to the top.”
The breakout groups on pre-service and educator professional learning arising through cross-sector collaborations discussed many existing models and approaches that could be replicated and expanded, said Jim Kisiel, associate professor at California State University, Long Beach, and Joan Bissell, director of teacher education and public school programs in the California State University Chancellor’s Office, who reported for the two groups. These innovations involve different actors doing different things, whether a university and local community are working on teacher professional development or an afterschool program is working with a local school. But they both said a common theme is that many of these interactions provide a way for pre-service teachers to learn more about teaching in settings in addition to schools.
For example, as Bissell noted, the American Museum of Natural
History in New York City is the only museum in the nation that has a graduate program and grants certifications. It offers a number of experiences to teachers, analogous to a medical residency model, to enable them to work with different student groups and in different settings. Other examples noted included afterschool leadership programs, an online registry of certified training programs, collaborative professional development, and pre-service teachers taking over a classroom to enable a teacher to meet with afterschool staff.
The breakout groups on this topic discussed opportunities for such interactions to increase, both in number and kind. Various obstacles can obstruct these interactions, including funding, human capacity, and time, and the groups said these obstacles need to be overcome to scale up these interactions. Bissell noted that pre-service education also has entered a time of great opportunity for innovation. For example, as a result of recent legislation in California, lifting the one-year cap on credential program length, teacher candidates can begin their training with an internship in a summer program before they learn in a more traditional way about teaching (California Senate, 2013; Sawchuck, 2013). Research has shown that teachers who start in this way tend to teach in a different way than those students who progress through more traditional pre-service programs. For example, they are more likely to use the investigative and active practices that they have seen in afterschool or summer programs in their own teaching. These programs are also valuable as a recruiting tool for students or professionals who may be considering teaching. Making these kinds of training resources online and accessible would offer a way to scale up this approach.
One prominent topic of conversation in the breakout groups was the need to identify the attributes that make a program or activity successful, both reporters observed. Though learning systems differ from place to place and time to time, identifying commonalities among these attributes could provide a list of best practices for other innovators, according to the groups.
Something else that would be extremely useful, Bissell noted, is an online glossary of terms for use in cross-sector collaborations. Such a glossary would make it possible for everyone to know what a particular term means. A second need he suggested is the ability to certify mastery of competencies, with competencies developed by experts and rigorous methods for candidates to demonstrate their attainment of those competencies.
The breakout group on assessment noted that several recent developments have changed the discussion about testing and assessment. A widespread sense exists that assessment in schools is broken, said Gil Noam, professor at Harvard University, and that something originally intended to help students learn better has instead become a source of anxiety and confusion. One question is whether afterschool assessments should differ from those given during the school day. A deeper question is whether the types of learning that students need can be rigorously assessed. “Can one connect the real learning, the real fun, the real exploration of children, and the real outcomes of their learning to a form of assessment?” Noam queried.
The situation may seem dismal, said Noam, but he said that is not accurate. In fact, many interesting and creative assessments exist that are addressing these issues. “We need to build on those rather than come out of these meetings saying we need assessments,” he said. “There’s a lot to build on.”
The breakout group also discussed data sharing, which has been an obstacle in the past because of privacy concerns. But school districts around the country are now overcoming these problems so that the elements of the STEM learning system can share information. “Boston is one example,” said Noam, “where school districts are willing to open up the information.”1
Finally, individual students’ outcomes are important in assessment, but another important factor to assess is the context, said Noam, asking “What are good programs, what are the contexts, what are the learning strategies, who are the people who are actually teaching children across contexts?” He said answering such questions would yield outcomes at different levels that are not only broad and apply across systems but also in depth on particular factors.
The first working group on online mechanisms for collaboration settled on three main themes, reported David Greer, executive director with the Oklahoma Innovation Institute in Tulsa.
One was the need for collaborative matching when sharing online curricula, Greer explained. Besides providing a means for exchanging information, technology can help identify who is out there, who is doing what, and which efforts communicate most beneficially. Rather than dupli-
cating resources, online exchanges can enable the leveraging of existing resources and the creation of collaborative resources for the future. Also, online technologies have been used in the past to replicate fairly mediocre educational techniques, Greer said. Rather than using technology to do what has always been done, the group noted that teaching could be used to present material in a way that captivates this generation of children.
The second theme was the sustainability of initiatives. “How can you not only start these programs but keep them going effectively?” he said. The group suggested that to be cost-effective, content needs to be sustainable, with modules maintained and upgraded on a regular basis. But today’s students are accustomed to media-rich content with advanced simulations and graphics, which, as Greer pointed out, can be expensive.
The third theme identified by the breakout group was the need for a culture shift in thinking about how to approach the integration of STEM learning across sectors. Rather than decrying a problem or praising a solution, American educators need to ask what is working and what is not working, said Greer. “It’s okay to celebrate the successes, but let’s also talk about what’s not working and why it’s not working so we can progress,” he said.
Participants in a second breakout group on online resources talked about the “Amazon model,” reported David Evans, executive director of the National Science Teachers Association, in which additional resources are suggested based on what a teacher has used in the past. In this way, educators could build their own professional development portfolio, as well as enhancing interactions and sharing of resources across communities. For students and for teachers, online resources also could play a role in a badging system for student achievement and for professional development, the group suggested. Also, in their use of online resources, both teachers and students generate a great deal of data, and Evans said the possible uses of these data have not been well explored.
Scaling up either learning opportunities or professional development requires online approaches, said Evans. That can be the difference between reaching millions of people and thousands. But, he noted, resources need to be vetted and curated, rather than just consisting of the first three hits of a Google search. On the other hand, excessive control over resources can result in others setting the agenda or constraints on resources because of intellectual property protections. Collection points, portals, or hubs could make vetted materials accessible. Another possible model is what Evans called the “Yelp model,” where the users of resources rate those materials and help determine whether they are recommended to others.
This breakout group also discussed blended learning, where online resources are combined with face-to-face learning. This approach, too,
raises question of scale, though face-to-face interactions can be facilitated online through telepresence technologies, as the group explored.
Educators cannot be afraid to fail, Greer observed. He said, “The engineering process in general is designed to fail so you can learn from that and progress. But our education system doesn’t seem to be built that way. We’re afraid to fail in anything, but how are we going to learn and how are we going to make bigger steps to improve opportunities for our kids?”
Online technologies represent a tremendous resource for educators from different sectors, along with a way to communicate and exchange ideas. However, Evans also noted that teaching is a clinical process and not one that will be replaced by online resources that are doled out in a mechanical way. “These are resources to help people who interact personally with children,” he said.
Kathleen Traphagen reported on the breakout session on policy and funding approaches for cross-sector collaborations. First, she said, the work of intermediary organizations is often critical to the success of cross-sector collaboration, yet it has been difficult to find funding for these organizations. It also has been difficult to fund evaluation work, especially since practitioners tend not to have enough knowledge, expertise, or time to do such evaluations effectively, she observed.
Private philanthropies provide the most flexibility and are the most willing to take risks, breakout session participants discussed. On this note, Gerald Solomon, executive director of the Samueli Foundation, called attention to the work of the STEM Funders Network, which consists of a diverse group of education-focused philanthropies. Though the funders are very different, they share a common interest in and commitment to the improvement of STEM learning. They have come together to do some things that none could do alone, including sponsoring this convocation and activities to implement the ideas developed at the convocation. “We want to be able to translate some of our experiences to be able to help communities all across the country in building the types of integrated networks that we’re talking about,” said Solomon.
The practitioners in the breakout group noted that it can be very problematic when funders switch their evaluation strategies in the middle of a project, Traphagen continued. Also, when grant-making priorities change, programs need enough lead time to be able to think how to replace that funding.
For both funders and projects, being honest about the risks and challenges is good policy, said Traphagen. She pointed out that good communications, trust, being upfront about expectations, and recognizing when
a match is not working are also important. Jay Labov, a staff member at the National Research Council and the primary staff organizer for the convocation, mentioned that he had heard in a number of conferences that researchers had expressed the desirability of aligning reporting requirements for grants. Organizations with grants from multiple funders spend an enormous amount of time and money trying to accommodate different funders. Common metrics for programs could increase efficiency while also providing for accountability. “It’s a win-win situation,” he said.
At the policy level, people and organizations tend to be focused on particular parts of the STEM learning system, not on the whole system, but Traphagen suggested that a brief, coherent, and potent message could direct attention to the entire system and not just one of its parts. Perhaps the new findings of the rapidly developing learning sciences could provide such a message, said Traphagen, or the need to be a life-long STEM learner given the pace of change in the modern world. As an example, Traphagen quoted a line from a colleague, Sam Houston: STEM stands for “Strategies That Engage Minds.”2
Policies could be shaped to support a national effort on STEM learning systems around a core set of strategies and principles, Traphagen said. These systems may look different in different communities, but they would have common objectives. For example, the California STEM Learning Network3 has developed a policy agenda that connects the implementation of the Next Generation Science Standards with informal education and prioritizes innovative STEM networks. Not every state will be able to implement such policies, but leverage points exist in each state, Traphagen noted. Of particular importance, federal standards apply in each state, and these standards can influence state and local policies.
Finally, she said, a STEM learning system can provide educators with opportunities to be what they wanted to be when they entered education. It allows them creativity and opportunities to experience the joy of learning with children. This is a good leverage point, said Traphagen, because it builds grassroots support for participating in cross-sector collaborations. Funders could add to this support by creating multicity programs or demonstrations of effective STEM learning in and out of schools.