Why an Ecosystem Approach Advances STEM Learning

By Jacie Maslyk


Powerful learning does not happen in isolation.  This is especially true for our students, which is why STEM learning is so critical.  Learning within siloed subject areas does not allow students to see the interconnected nature of science, technology, engineering, and math.  When we create connections between what students are learning in math and science and apply that learning through technology and engineering, students can engage in meaningful experiences. Through thoughtful instructional design, teachers can create STEM lessons that cross subject areas and provide connected learning for students.  These connections can be even more solidified when classrooms and schools are a part of an ecosystem.

What is an ecosystem?

Think about a biological ecosystem.  It is made up of a complex system or organisms within the physical environment.  Each component and part, in some way or another, rely on another part.  The interrelated system links plants and animals together in a network of living things.

An educational ecosystem is similar in that it includes a network of schools, after school programs, institutions of higher education, as well as organizations like museums, science centers, and other professional organizations that support STEM learning.  The ecosystem approach eliminates learning in isolation and creates ongoing opportunities for cross-collaboration and partnerships that can advance learning for all students.

In this digital age, STEM ecosystems can be physical or virtual.  While you may not be able to connect face-to-face with a university partner or a STEM expert, you can create meaningful connections through technology.  Learning beyond the physical classroom can be enhanced through the use of technology through the use of video.

We can spark students' engagement in STEM learning when we are able to connect them with experts in the field.  For example, the Sea Excursions project in Marco Island. Florida connects with classrooms around the globe, providing real-world content knowledge of sea life and marine habitats in Florida. Imagine the connections you can establish when students can communicate directly with a boating captain and animal experts providing first-hand knowledge of critical science concepts.

Successful STEM ecosystems create connections that can leverage learning, not only for students but for teachers, too.  Want to learn more about the ecosystem approach, or have an interest in building a network of organizations to support student learning?  You can read more about the existing STEM ecosystems across the country here.


Why ecosystems matter?

Just like a biological ecosystem, each part of the educational ecosystem depends on the other components working in alignment.  When we encourage STEM educators to link their programs to connected experiences for students, we can create meaningful opportunities in our schools.  When students understand how their learning connects beyond the school walls, they can begin to navigate their own learning pathways and explore their own STEM interests.  Those interests can connect young people with STEM careers and potential mentors in the field creating opportunities for college, career, and beyond.

Ecosystems don’t just make a difference for students, but for teachers, too.  A connected ecosystem of STEM learning helps teachers to create integrated learning opportunities that connect to the real world. It allows teachers to plan experiences that provide content knowledge to students, as well as the application of that knowledge.  School leaders can support educators in their school by taking the lead and working to build a supportive ecosystem to advance student learning.

Parents and communities benefit from an ecosystem approach, as well.  As we build capacity within our students and our schools, we must also educate our parents and communities on the future of STEM and the opportunities that it can provide to young people. Other organizations within the ecosystem can support the STEM success of students through the programs that they offer, the resources they share, and the presence that they create within the educational environment.


Ecosystems in Action

One way that we can see the success of an ecosystem approach is through collaborative community events.  In our district, we host a STEAM Walk event that brings together a variety of stakeholders all around the importance of science, technology, engineering, art, and math.  When we plan for this event, we reach out to those in our STEM network to combine our resources.  We connect with our local universities who are looking to advance STEM learning through their programs.  They participate in our STEAM Walk, bringing undergraduate students to talk about 3D printing with our students or engage them in a hands-on STEM activity.  Our Career and Technology Center joins in doing demonstrations and sharing with the community the STEM career pathways that are explored through their programs. Local businesses are also a part of the ecosystem, sharing with teachers and students the ways that STEM can look in the local industry.  This might include parents who can share their STEM expertise, as well as teachers and school leaders who have an interest in coding, robotics, building, or maker education.

An ecosystem approach pulls everyone into the learning, establishing stronger links between what is learned in school and the many ways that can extend beyond the general curriculum.  The interconnected nature of STEM learning is felt when stakeholders come together to share their part of what makes the ecosystem successful.



Author: Jacie Maslyk is an educator, leader, and speaker.  She is also the author of Unlock Creativity: Opening a World of Imagination With Your Students, a book that shares simple ways to develop creativity in yourself and in your students.


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