From Wandering to Wonders with the STEM Ecosystem

COP Photo

By Sabrina Gomez, Director of ExpandED STEM Opportunities
Sabrina manages Every Hour Counts’ FUSE 3.0 initiative and ExpandED Schools’ Design2Learn.

I have always believed that one should wander with people who make you wonder.

I sat down for breakfast at my fourth STEM Learning Ecosystems National Community of Practice (COP) in Tampa, Florida last month, eager to discuss and learn from colleagues who have become familiar faces and friends. At 8:00AM, representatives from the Indiana STEM Ecosystems Initiative, New York City STEM Funders Network and Orange County STEM Initiative were already engaged in a discussion on college and career readiness. Unbeknownst to me, we were also joined by our distinguished keynote speaker, Dr. Greg Washington, Dean of Henry Samueli School of Engineering at the University of California Irvine. For personal reasons, I was instantly hooked (my younger sister had just declared her intent to attend his school to study Mechanical Engineering this fall!). We discussed the need to provide students’ choice and exposure to a variety of STEM pathways and the need for flexible mentoring models that incorporate social media and technology to capitalize on the interest of 21st century learners. It made me wonder about our ecosystem and the challenges NYC city students experience connecting the dots between their classrooms STEM experiences to their community and the world at large.

This spirit of camaraderie – like-minded individuals coming together to tackle grand challenges in STEM – is what the Community of Practice has come to represent for me. Over 200 dedicated professionals from 39 ecosystems representing different sectors of society shared their thinking on how to connect pre-K-12 STEM learning to real world experience and careers. I was part of the New York STEM Education Network Ecosystem team which included Brian Cohen, Beam Center; Janet Kelley, Kelly Collaborative; Lynda Kennedy, Vice President Education Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum; Candace Reyes-Dandrea, Deputy Director Capacity Building Unit Department of Youth and Community Development; and Chris Whipple, Director of Programs, ExpandED Schools.

The COP has also become a space to reframe failure as success. Dr. Cary Sneider, leader of the engineering group on the Next Generation Science and Engineering writing team, and an advisor for Every Hour Counts FUSE 3.0 initiative, led a session on the Engineering Design Process, challenging participants to build the tallest tower possible in 15 minutes, using only 50 index cards and 15 inches of tape that could hold the weight of a cell phone. COP teams planned, designed, built, tested and redesigned their structures. Our team first planned to create circles with the index cards and build from there. After two attempts and no tower, I suggested folding the index cards into triangles. We tried and noticed that we did not need tape. The competition was fierce! We continued to build and encouraged one another until our tower eclipsed 24 inches, one of the highest of the entire convening.

This activity served as segue to Dr. Dean Washington’s keynote address. He stated that if any of the grand challenges in STEM could be solved, it would be us, the ecosystems and COP members together, that would solve them. He challenged our communities to serve as a testing ground where solutions could be designed, tested, reiterated and shared amongst each other. I instantly thought of ExpandED Schools work with Design2Learn, an Investing in Innovation Development Grant, and FUSE 3.0 Initiative. Both of these initiatives are testing formal and informal models that bring educators together to facilitate design based learning with the goal of increasing student achievement, motivation and interest in science. He encouraged second (and third) attempts and if something does not work the first time that does not mean there’s no room for improvement. More importantly, he highlighted the uniqueness of a community such as ours and the opportunity to speak openly about our challenges and share ideas with fellow COP participants. As a community, we are the “STEM army” that will bring about solutions to issues around early childhood education, professional development and parent engagement in our continuing efforts to ensure that STEM is seamlessly integrated into a robust educational system from pre K to college and career.  

Many thanks to Co-Chairs Ron Ottinger, Director of STEM Next; Gerald Solomon, Executive Director of the Samueli Foundation; and the entire Teaching Institute for Excellence in STEM team for planning such a memorable event. Thanks to all fellow community of practice members who always send me back to New York City wondering and brimming with new possibilities.  

An Equity Action Agenda for Youth Development Professionals


By Jennifer Siaca Curry, Ed.D.
Jennifer has worked in the afterschool and expanded learning field for over a decade, working with the statewide afterschool network in New York and ExpandED Schools. She explored afterschool programs delivered through school/community partnerships in her doctoral dissertation and is a member of the board of the NYS Network for Youth Success. This post was originally published on LinkedIn.

We are living in an important moment in time (an understatement!), and recommitting ourselves to equity and inclusion for all in the youth development field is a must. Youth programs have a long history of responding to social needs—sheltering kids from war in the early 20th century, providing child care as women entered the workforce in the 1970s, extending academic learning time in the No Child Left Behind-era.

I argue that today we are preparing for a new focus: the social and emotional needs of young people, and that this new opportunity is incomplete without an antidiscrimination framework. The youth development field is poised to protect children and youth of all races, religions, ethnicities, genders, socioeconomic backgrounds, sexual orientations, appearances, and abilities – to embrace their identities and lift their assets to support them in becoming productive, engaged, and successful adults.

And the good news? You don’t need a grant to make this happen. Here are six things you can do today to have a positive impact on the youth you serve.

Build a personal understanding of the history of oppression.

Experts agree that having deeper knowledge about our country’s history is central to weakening racism. While it’s certainly easier to leave the past behind us, building an understanding of the events, constructs, and people who laid the foundation for today’s discriminatory structures and beliefs will make you a stronger advocate and enable you to pass accurate historical knowledge on. One of my favorite anecdotes is from Marian Wright Edelman: A Texas student recognized his social studies textbook ignored the brutality of the slave trade, which he had learned in his Children’s Defense Fund program. Not only did he educate his classmates, but his protest led to McGraw-Hill issuing an apology and an updated version of the textbook!

Mind your words—they matter.

First, I recommend youth development professionals subscribe to a philosophy of multiculturalism rather than color blindness. Saying things like, “I don’t see color” or “I treat everyone the same” may feel innocuous, but research and experience suggest that people primed to have a color-blind perspective display more explicit and implicit biases than those primed with a multicultural perspective. When it comes to specifics, the Opportunity Agenda has curated a list of words and phrases that impede equity and inclusion, as well as replacement terms to use instead. It’s a great document to use as required reading for new staff.

Work to eliminate implicit bias.

Most of us genuinely hold no ill will toward others and find the idea of implicit bias difficult to swallow. However, it’s natural to have an “in-group bias,” a slight inherent preference for people who share your characteristics. There are several things you can do, according to psychologists Tropp and Godsil: Regularly expose yourself to counter-stereotypic group members and assume the perspective of outgroup members to gain a new worldview to guide your behavior. Lastly, be mindful of implicit bias in your everyday work. From assigning students to activities, to choosing who to hire, to having conversations with families, we have many opportunities to either act on or ignore our implicit biases.

Use culturally-responsive pedagogy (for all students).

Gloria Ladson-Billings’ vision of culturally-responsive pedagogy may be more important now than ever before. She called for teaching and learning to empower students using their own cultural context in their education. Experts at NYU explain “culturally responsive classrooms can create a space where harmful images can be deconstructed and positive self and cultural affirmations portrayed” by infusing classes and activities with reflections of children’s identities, cultures, and languages.

This is not a one-size-fits-all solution; each community has to shape an approach that works for its students. For example, Christopher Emdin’s book For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood… and The Rest of Ya’ll Too provides examples specific to teaching Black students in urban communities, such as using engagement techniques used by Black pastors. Although customization is key, there are some universal strategies; for example, many cultures use spoken words and music to share their history. Therefore, opportunities to learn through music, theater, slam poetry, and other verbal platforms can be particularly effective for teaching diverse groups of children. There’s also youth culture to consider—you may not be on Snapchat, but if that’s where your students are most engaged… it’s time to check it out.

Label and address identity-based bullying head-on.

Identity-based bullying includes insults, threats, or physical aggression against someone because of who they are. A 2016 survey found that more than half the middle and high school student respondents reported bullying because of their appearance, and about a third were bullied because of their race or ethnicity. The Anti-Defamation League offers resources and tips for mitigating this type of bullying, including explicitly teaching youth what identity-based bullying is and explaining that it is not caused by the victim’s identity, but instead by the perpetrator’s own biases. Establish open lines of communication with students and create a norm of telling an adult when identity-based bullying occurs. By explicitly including these practices and norms in behavior management protocols communicated to youth, a safer environment for all students will result.

Find staff who build and maintain a positive environment for all.

A program is only as good as the people who run it, and no matter what your intentions are, your staff will make or break your program environment. Hiring staff who are willing to engage in reflection, discussion, and action regarding eliminating discrimination is key. I recommend revamping your screening process to ask questions that explore one’s commitment to inclusion, ask candidates to commit to using appropriate language, teaching, and management strategies, and spending a few minutes observing candidates with youth before making a job offer.

Need more resources? Check out these planning tools from the Annie E. Casey Foundation and Racial Equity Tools as a start.

*Note: this is an excerpt of a longer article with additional research and resources cited. Stay tuned for the full paper, expected to be published this fall.

Reflections on the FUSE 3.0 Institute: Cultivating Curiosity and SEL through Informal and Formal Collaboration

by Sabrina Gomez


“As you were walking, what are some things you notice about the conference room, its arrangements, its contents, what physical structure or behaviors would be necessary for insects to survive here?,” asked Olga Feingold, Program Director, Thompson Island Outward Bound Education Center in Boston. Olga was leading FUSE 3.0 Winter Institute participants in Nashville.

The Institute brought together forty leaders in youth development, education, and informal science from six cities who came together to share their thinking on using social-emotional learning (SEL) skill-building to strengthen STEM learning in- and out-of-school. Lead organizations included ExpandED Schools in New York City, the Providence After School Alliance, Boston After School & Beyond, the Nashville After Zone Alliance, Prime Time Palm Beach County, and Collective for Youth in Omaha. The group was joined by Ron Ottinger, Director of STEM Next, and leaders in the field of science and social emotional learning; Senior Research Scientist Dr. Sue Allen, who heads a national, Noyce-funded project that provides online professional development for afterschool providers; Dr. Cary Sneider, Associate Professor at Portland State University, leader of the engineering group on the NGSS writing team, and science consultant to STEM Next; and Dr. Nick Yoder, Senior Technical Assistance Consultant, American Institutes for Research.

Olga’s activity is routinely employed by Thompson Island informal educators, and is aimed at having students think purposefully about how structures and behaviors increase survival of the population. The activity sparked enthusiasm around the room as we explored how activities rooted in the Next Generation Science and Engineering Practices could be brought to life in an interactive, fun way led by informal educators.

The presentation also allowed us to step into the educators’ shoes to experience how they might assess the extent to which students are engaging deeply with the practices. We used observation, critical thinking, communication, and team work skills to make claims about the function of an adaptation by recording observed evidence and then presenting our individual organisms to the larger group, which fostered further idea-sharing among peers. We quickly realized that we were also relying on the same SEL to answer Ms. Feingold’s series of questions.

Olga’s presentation embodied the spirit of inquiry, assessment, and the intersection of youth development principles, STEM, and SEL that fueled January’s two-day Institute. Underlying this spirit was also a practical exploration of how teams could use formative assessments rooted in Next Generation Science Standards’ practices of scientists and engineers to create a solid foundation for this work.

Accordingly, Dr. Allen and Dr. Sneider co-led a discussion around how teams could incorporate formative assessments in out-of-school time in order to increase opportunities for youth to practice and strengthen their understanding of the science and engineering practices. To support this work, Dr. Yoder, who also leads the focal area on safe and supportive classrooms, and social and emotional learning (SEL) for the Center on Great Teachers and Leaders, facilitated a discussion about strategies for creating educator professional development experiences that connect STEM and SEL skills. Together, Institute teams learned from other cities’ professional development types and series they facilitate with staff. Ann Durham and Brittany Sandbergen, from the Providence After Zone Alliance, shared their work around designing and leading professional development experiences for formal and informal educators involved in FUSE 3.0.  

Combined, Institute’s discussions and activities highlighted the key theme of FUSE 3.0: Expanded learning time can be a time for youth to engage with Next Generation Science and Engineering Practices, and for educators to assess their growth in those Practices while still holding true to youth development principles that help cultivate curiosity.

Boston, Providence, New York City and Omaha are also part of the STEM Ecosystems Initiative, supported by STEM Next and the STEM Funders Network. The ecosystems work—intentionally connecting STEM learning experiences for kids across a full range of settings in- and out-of-school, at home, in community-based settings, online and in the workforce—aligns with the FUSE 3.0 strategy.

Engaging the High School Teenager: Reflections from After School Matters

Guest post by Julia Flores, After School Matters. This is the fourth and final post in our series on the Third Annual Institute for Building Expanded-Learning Systems. Read part 1: overview here, part 2: Reflections from Denver here, and part 3:  Closing the Exposure Gap here.

At the Every Hour Counts Institute for Building Expanded-Learning Systems in August, After School Matters convened a panel of teens to give the inside scoop on what it’s like to be a teen in an after-school program and give advice on how to best engage high school students. Is there anyone better to speak to promising practices than the teens themselves?


After School Matters teen panel shares their insights.

Teens were asked the following: what can instructors do now to improve engagement? They mentioned the importance of building community early in the program session. The series of games and icebreakers helped them get to know and feel more comfortable with each other. Teens also mentioned providing teens the opportunity to choose the direction in which the learning goes. Teen choice is very important to them and it helps ensure that there is relevance in the content.

The teens mentioned several reasons why they remained engaged throughout the summer. The first thing that was mentioned was the reputation of the program. Several of the teen panelists had been recruited to the program by their friends. The second thing mentioned was the fact that the instructor was not only funny and engaging, but showed genuine interest in their lives. To quote a teen: “Our instructor…he’s not family, but pretty close to it.”


What stood out to me was the sheer confidence the teens possessed in speaking to a room full of adults in the OST space. They spoke clearly about their skill development and the correlation between that and the growth of their confidence. One teen even mentioned that the skills she learned in public speaking helped her tremendously in school. Those same skills enabled her to teach other students in her class to hone their public speaking skills. Ultimately, what teens learned in their After School Matters program helped them in school. The confidence they built in their OST program helped them in life. That is the ultimate goal of teaching anything.

That panel discussion is one of those defining moments in one’s career. It reaffirms what I’ve known all along: after school really matters. We, as OST providers, have a unique opportunity to change the lives of the youth that seek out our programs. We can create the space for teens to grow and explore various possible careers. We just have to empower teens to find their voice and make them partners in instruction.

Julia Flores is the Director of Instruction at After School Matters.

Closing the Third Gap: Exposure

Guest post by Danielle Kim. This is the third post in a series on our Third Annual Institute for Building Expanded-Learning Systems. Read part 1 here and part 2 here.

Since the publication of the seminal 1966 Coleman report, the education field has coalesced around the goal of narrowing the achievement gap. Decades later, powered by research showing connections between out-of-school factors and youth outcomes, we have expanded our efforts to address the second gap: a pervasive disparity in learning time and experiences, also called the opportunity gap.

However, research and practice show that learning experiences are not created equal, and that the rigor and relevance of these opportunities matter.

At the Third Annual System-Building Institute hosted in Chicago last month by Every Hour Counts, 29 communities from across the country gathered together to share ideas for strengthening and scaling our systems-building work. During the first day of Institute, I was struck by an astute comment from one colleague: “exposure is equity.”

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From Idea to Action: Reflections from Denver Afterschool Alliance

Guest post by Katherine Plog Martinez and Maxine Quintana. This is the second post in a series on our Third Annual Institute for Building Expanded-Learning Systems. Read part 1 here.

We’ve all been to the conferences where you meet back up with your group between sessions and the ask of “How were the sessions?” are met with – “Meh.” “Well, I guess I have one new idea.” “I’m hoping the next one’s better.” In other words – a bust.

If you think about a conference like that and then imagine the polar opposite you would have the Every Hour Counts System-Building Institute.

Between each session, the Denver team couldn’t stop sharing our ideas, aligning our learning, and beginning to think about how we can adjust and grow as a result of what we learned. We excitedly discussed data dashboards. We wondered about youth employment and its connections to after-school programming (both for students, and in building our work force of youth development professionals). We talked through ideas for programming and ideas for supporting programs. We talked deeply about equity and how to model it in all we do.


Participants discussing reflections during a breakout session.

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From Idea to Action: Third Annual Institute for Building Expanded-Learning Systems

“This is not a mystery. It’s what we want for our own kids: activities where kids discover themselves and the world around them.” Rahm Emanuel, Mayor, City of Chicago

In August, Every Hour Counts hosted, “From Idea to Action: An Institute for Building Expanded-Learning Systems,” a two-day event that brought together teams of leaders from 19 communities around the country to discuss the essential elements of expanded-learning systems. Mayor Rahm Emanuel, steadfast supporter of after-school and of our host city partner, After School Matters, set the tone for the event with his belief that after-school can transform lives: “Our obligation does not end at 3:30 pm on June 10. For our kids to live up to their potential, we need to live up to our obligation.”


City of Chicago Panel (from right to left): Moderator Mary Ellen Caron, CEO of After School Matters; Mayor Rahm Emanuel; Robbie Robinson, Managing Director of BDT& Company, After School Matters Board of Directors Vice Chair; and Gillian Darlow, CEO, Polk Bros. Foundation

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To dream the impossible dream

Guest post by Wokie Weah. This post originally appeared on the Youthprise blog on July 8, 2016.

Nancy Wong Photography, LLC

Like most Minnesotans, I woke up yesterday to the horrific news of Philando Castile’s death. My first thought was for his family. I marveled at the poise of his fiancé Diamond Reynolds, his four-year-old stepdaughter, mother, and uncle. As a mother myself, I was filled with all of the complex emotions that come up for the mothers of African American males. We live in constant fear for the safety of our sons. According to Bureau of Justice Statistics, 13% of black drivers are stopped by police while only 10% of white or Hispanic drivers are stopped, meaning that African Americans are 31% more likely to be pulled over.

Systems recreate systems. Violence perpetuates violence. The time is ripe to reimagine a way to end systematic racism.

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Policy Update: What We Know So Far About Federal Funding for Expanded-Learning in 2017

The federal budget and appropriations process can be quite a roller coaster, and this year is no exception. In the early phases of the annual appropriations process, the expanded-learning field faces the possibility of significantly reduced federal funding in fiscal year 2017 (FY17) as Congress balances competing needs and limited funds.

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Announcing the Every Hour Counts National Learning Community!

Every Hour Counts put out a call for applications for a new initiative: a peer learning community composed of expanded-learning systems-builders ready to take their system to the next level. Today we are excited to announce the Every Hour Counts National Learning Community has launched with 13 cities and counties from around the country.

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