Our education system is very much like an ecosystem. Oxford English Dictionary defines an ecosystem as a “system or network of interacting parts” – or in other words, things or objects in one single environment that have to interact and connect with one another.
I met with Kansas City’s largest learning ecosystem, the KC STEM Alliance. Since its creation in 2011, KC STEM Alliance has worked with thousands of companies, students, teachers, postsecondary educators and industry professionals in hopes of building a very strong workforce pipeline for Kansas City. I spoke to Martha McCabe, executive director; Ann Zimmerman, strategic development; and Callen Fairchild Zind, marketing manager, who gave me an eye-opening look at their organization.
As the backbone organization for Kansas City’s STEM Learning Ecosystem—a designation earned in 2015 from the STEM Funders Network—Ann says the KC STEM Alliance is “a matchmaker that brings resources to Kansas City and who incubates promising ideas and practices. We work with schools, business partners, out-of-school program providers and other nonprofit partners to collaborate around a common interest area.” Specifically, those interest areas focus on building skills in science, technology, engineering and math to build a sustainable STEM workforce for the Kansas City community.
KC STEM Alliance originated from a generous grant through the Kauffman Foundation. The Kauffman Foundation had identified an emerging STEM workforce gap and invested in two national best-practice programs, FIRST Robotics and Project Lead The Way (PLTW.) Because of their efforts and funding, Kansas City now has the largest penetration of both of these programs in the country.
This reach is one of the things that makes Kansas City stand out from the 83 other communities that have been identified as STEM Learning Ecosystems, Martha said. “In the early creation we were anchored to two of the best practice programs with PLTW and FIRST. What that gave us is the opportunity for scale, and an opportunity for focus, so that we could develop a best practice strategy on what that looks like for students and for teachers.”
Similar to Make48’s concept, both of these STEM programs give students hands-on challenges to problem solve and come up with solutions. At FIRST, programs are built on the foundation of innovation and leadership. KC STEM is the contracted partner to produce all the competitions in the region. They work with area businesses, schools, professional organizations and volunteers to bring the opportunity to countless students. Mentors lead students in the after-school program, and this approach allows students to work side-by-side industry professionals and casually learn about STEM professions using FIRST robotic challenges.
One of the ways KC STEM Alliance supports Project Lead The Way is a day-long workshop to kick off the school year for students enrolled in engineering and biomedical science capstone courses. Students have to identify an issue, then research, design, and test a solution. Each team of students work with a mentor from the business community to complete the first part of the design process, which is to clearly define and justify a problem. Mentors from companies volunteer their time and expertise to facilitate constructive brainstorming sessions. At the end of the brainstorm exercises, students compile a long list of problems they want to solve. The students will spend the school year working on their projects, going through many iterations, and finally presenting them at the annual showcase in the spring.
Ann told me that a benefit of PLTW is its consistency across school districts: “Science class might look different in classrooms across the country, but (at PLTW) class is a consistent curriculum. They’re supplied with the same level of rigor, no matter where you are.” Industry partnerships are essential in making this pipeline work. “PLTW reaches 86,000 students in our area,” Callen noted. “Our connections with schools through PLTW gives us the avenue to reach educators and connect them with industry partners.”
There’s enough room for everybody in this workforce pipeline development. With partners such as Black & Veatch, Burns & McDonnell, Honeywell, Cerner, Garmin and SS&C, businesses get connected with educators and join committees that establish working relationships to grow STEM-career awareness, bringing about opportunities for kids to be exposed to careers.
STEM educators need companies that support these ecosystems. Trusted adults and partners help in decreasing barriers for students (especially girls and students of color) while building a solid education and career path. And that, Ann said, is one of the primary goals for Kansas City’s STEM Learning Ecosystem: “to ensure access and equity to quality STEM learning experiences for all.”
Sir Ken Robinson observed that ‘The more complex the world becomes, the more creative we need to be to meet its challenges.’ The KC STEM Alliance is meeting that challenge. “We are interested in knowing and understanding the landscape of what is happening in our community, then making meaningful connections and encouraging collaborations.” Ann went on to say. “We need to create broader equity and access for our youth. From parents to administrators—to libraries and STEM program providers—anybody who is worried about youth development and then helps create a pipeline of workforce are connected to this work.”
It’s very easy to come off your path. KC STEM Alliance believes its best to start early in a child’s life (pre-k) and continue building universal STEM skills such as critical thinking, design thinking and problem solving throughout their education journey.
“We recognize that a career path may have dips and turns,” Martha said. “The more we can help students be slightly more linear on their path and understand the variety of pathways available, the better for students economically and ultimately, the better for the community.”
Exposing students to real world learning experiences from a very early age creates more opportunities for them to be inspired to continue their explorations, Martha added: “There are certain things that are said to you that may not resonate when you’re 12, but then someone says something at 14 and all of a sudden it catches your attention,” Martha said. “We refer to that as ‘Moments.’ Moments are pauses where somebody says something to you and it shifts or reinforces what you’re going to do.” Communities, mentors and the education sector can all be part of those teachable moments that can have a profound effect on the brighter future of our youth.