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Ecosystem Spotlight – St. Louis Regional STEM Learning Ecosystem (STEMSTL)



How TIES is using the Engineering Design Process to Increase Local STEM Access for all Learners
By Sarah Koebley, PhD
Manager, STEM Learning Ecosystems National Community of Practice

In communities all across North America (and beyond), STEM Learning Ecosystems are working hard to improve teaching and learning in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). TIES, the Teaching Institute for Excellence in STEM, leads and supports this intense community engagement using foundational principles that are the bedrock of a quality design process.

In the Fall of 2017, St. Louis joined 55 other cities and regions in North America with the new St. Louis Regional STEM Learning Ecosystem (STEMSTL). Assigned as their Technical Assistance Lead, and reflecting on research around and experience with STEM community engagement, I knew that this group’s approach to improved STEM access needed to be unique and honed to honor their local context.

Each Ecosystem community is led through a design process modeled after the key elements of the engineering design process (EDP):  1) define and delimit the problem to be solved, 2) design solutions and evaluate them to see which ones best meet the set criteria and constraints of the problem, and finally 3) optimize solutions systematically and iteratively[1].

Define and Delimit the Problem. In St. Louis, a team had already formed that was enthusiastic, engaged and ready to embrace TIES’ adapted design process. Applying the first step of the EDP, I met with local leadership and we got to work answering the following key questions: What are your greatest community STEM assets? Who has been instrumental in leading STEM change? Who and what community sector representation should be engaged in future STEM change efforts? What are your greatest STEM challenges? In face-to-face visits and a facilitated Design Studio™, I assisted leadership teams and community members in answering these questions.

Ninety-three participants joined the first Design Studio, all eager to work together and representing a wide variety of organizations: Jennings School District, St. Louis Student Robotics Association, Parents as Teachers, Saint Louis University, Saint Louis Science Center, Saint Louis Zoo, SLATE Workforce Development, St, Louis Regional Chamber, Jackie Joyner Kersee Foundation, Monsanto, and Charter Communication, to name a few.

These community leaders reflected, discussed, and recorded their ideas on how to “define and delimit” the problem of STEM access for all in St. Louis. Their collected responses were analyzed and categorized in order to define STEM Ecosystem Design Principles unique to the identified local assets and challenges of St. Louis and its surrounding communities. The St. Louis team wanted to be systematic in their approach to the analysis, making sure that community aspirations for success (as well as real or imagined constraints) were specifically addressed.

Some of the challenges identified in the Design Studio process included lack of alignment among organizations that are doing STEM outreach, low family involvement, not enough collaboration between STEM providers, understanding where the gaps are when it comes to STEM opportunities for learners, and competition for resources. Strengths include wide levels of engagement from a broad variety of partners, as well as common recognition from the group of some large challenges. The resulting first draft of the St. Louis STEM Ecosystem Design Principles creates “solid ground” on which to build future action plans and to guide future leadership and decision-making.


Design Solutions. In subsequent Design Studios, community members will begin designing targeted, community-based, action-team-oriented solutions and approaches. Each solution (or “task”) will be continually evaluated against how well it contributes to community aspirations for STEM success, how it deals with constraints, and how fully it stays true to St. Louis’ Design Principles. Sherita Haigler is the Director of the St. Louis Regional STEM Learning Ecosystem. Official job title: Catalyst! Haigler said, “By being connected to the National Ecosystem Initiative, the St. Louis Regional STEM Learning Ecosystem (STEMSTL) will be able to leverage lessons others have learned regarding overcoming hurdles and inertia. Over the years, St. Louis has discussed increased collaboration and the possibilities of alignment in the mode of an ecosystem. Lessons from the National STEM Ecosystem will help us move beyond conversation and intermittent collaboration to shared vision, planning and delivery.”

Haigler and STEMSTL are focused on translating shared vision into measurable activities, outputs, and outcomes that enhance STEM performance, as well as ensuring equitable STEM access across very disparate school districts and socio-economic conditions.

Optimize Solutions. The St. Louis Ecosystem will benefit from evaluating the work done in fellow Ecosystems and deciding what fits best with the St. Louis Region. Haigler said, “One central theme with many of the Ecosystems is a heavy emphasis on math programs. I would really like to get a more in-depth understanding of some of their programs and see how we could tweak them to meet St. Louis’ needs.”

St. Louis is committed to sustaining this design process through constant iterations of testing and refining “solutions.”  In STEM Learning Ecosystems, this involves continuous cycles of reviewing the effectiveness of leadership, partnerships, and STEM programs,as well as how well they contribute to the improvement of STEM teaching, learning and career access. Research tells us that largest impact comes from organizations that are emergent, responsive and flexible. Given the robust engagement from St. Louis’ STEM Ecosystem to TIES’ design process, their rock-solid design principles can be counted on to be the foundation of STEM “solution optimization” for years to come. Way to go, St. Louis!



*Note: St. Louis was fortunate to have the services of Todd Bauman, an artist provided by the Filament workspace in St. Louis. He summarized brainstorming and discussion sessions in visual format. We appreciate the visual overview as part of this in-depth snapshot of the Design Studio. 

[1]Next Generation Science Standards, 2013; National Research Council, 2012