There are a lot of ways to create opportunity for people — providing them with a basic service (food, shelter, clothing), removing an obstacle in the way of their growth and thriving, and so on. These are the broad and varied issues pursued by philanthropies and charities, schools and hospitals, and individuals.
Many charitable efforts take the form of direct service. If someone is going hungry, you can give them a meal, or teach them to fish or to garden. If the issue is that children are not prepared to understand climate change, you might create new curricula, or create an after-school program for them to learn more and engage with climate science. Direct service can be small scale or operate at a global level. But even at a global scale, creating opportunity by direct service is different from creating an ecosystem of opportunity.
Think about this problem: too many underrepresented kids fall off of STEM pathways during their middle school and high school years. (This is a key issue we’re interested in, and why we started the STEM++ project.) There are a lot of direct service ways to approach this problem, and many already are in place. You might decide that the problem is a lack of engaging or culturally-responsive curricula, or a dearth of hands-on science experiences. Or you might choose to address the lack of exposure and access by starting an after-school or summer extracurricular STEM program for seventh graders.
An ecosystems approach is different in a bunch of ways. It sees people as complex — not abstractions or averages but whole and situated in a context of place and community. In the case of underrepresented middle school students falling off STEM pathways, it turns out there are a whole host of obstacles that stand in the way of underrepresented students. An ecosystems approach zooms out to look at the whole environment over time. What are students’ experiences in elementary school? What is the role of the middle school teachers, and parents, and peers? And it looks at the pathways that individual students take over time, whatever the outcome.
A lot of the current direct service models in this space correctly note that a lack of access to high quality learning experiences is an obstacle. This is a good observation, but it has led many of the solutions to be located in individual, isolated classrooms and programs, while the field of obstacles is far more varied and interconnected. A seventh grade math teacher, for instance, might be doing everything exactly right in terms of curriculum and pedagogy. She may assume that the students in her charge who are thriving will continue to do well, and to stay engaged. In her school and professional development, she’s likely to interact with other middle school teachers, and other math teachers, but may not have much insight into the STEM experiences of her students before, or especially after, middle school. So a teacher who is doing her best may not be aware of the obstacles that await her students the following year, or later. What research is showing us is that there are significant obstacles not being addressed by the focus on access, materials, and curriculum. These include the often-invisible but giant issue of how students develop positive academic identities, especially in middle school and high school. Academic identity, which allows a student to identify as a STEM learner (or not: “I guess I’m not a math person.”), is influenced by students’ interactions with peers, grades, parents, teachers, and others.
In short, an ecosystems approach can address hidden and persistent, systemic issues that kick off underrepresented students from STEM pathways. This approach may sound overwhelming, because it is a call for systems change. However it is not at all impossible, even if this approach does require sustained attention and investment. An ecosystems approach also requires a kind of design process that goes beyond the iterative tweaking of pedagogy, professional development, or curriculum.
Far from being abstract or overly ambitious, ecosystems of opportunity can in fact start very small. MakeKnowledge demonstrated this over a few years working with a high school in Oakland, California. Every school and district requires tech support personnel, and the size of this technology team varies with the school’s budget, ambitions, and curricular goals. In most schools, the tech support team is tasked narrowly with keeping school technology working, perhaps also offering technology professional development. Overall, technology is a cost center for most schools. In our work, we showed how tech support could actually be the seed of a bigger, more strategic, vision for STEM achievement and opportunity in the school, and pay for itself in the process. This work grew slowly, at first inviting students to help with common support tasks, and hiring young alumni for summer tech work. It expanded as we began to bring in grant money to initiate technology learning pathways in a cluster of new areas, from IT to cybersecurity to design engineering. These Career Technical Education classes attracted many students who had written themselves off as STEM learners, and who had been overlooked by the traditional math and science departments. We started very small, but in the end opened new doors for hundreds of students with new classes and pathways, on-campus experiences, field trips, and relationships with local community colleges and universities. We also brought in over $3 million in new outside funding to the 700-student school over four years, not to mention great publicity, and new relationships with outside nonprofits and corporations including Sprint and Google.
Although it requires big shifts in mindset and practice, an ecosystems approach allows solutions that are both more comprehensive and more sustainable over the long term. As we face unpredictable, dynamic, whitewater futures — and a present where technology left to itself has introduced new challenges — an ecosystems approach can help build healthier, emergent, and collaborative opportunities for people and communities to thrive.
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