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.  

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