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  • Writer's pictureAmber Bosman

A Pathway to Equity and Access for All

The STEM Leadership Alliance (SLA) is a subsidiary of the STEM Happens Network (SHN). Think of it in two components, the STEM Leadership Alliance brings together education leaders from around the world to share learnings and practice, while the STEM Happens Network is the actual working component. SHN supports schools and districts to develop integrated STEM units across the content areas. The work is across the STEM disciplines and beyond, including literacy, art, social studies, etc. to build the capacity of educators so, integrated STEM units can be developed that support equitable instruction.

The vision of the work aims to re-engineer and revolutionize STEM education to shape tomorrow’s workforce and change the world. The mission is to develop a broad-based coalition composed of industry leaders, educators, non-profits organizations, and foundations committed to helping to increase understanding and implementation of effective integrated STEM education for ALL STUDENTS in order to develop individuals who are prepared not just for college and career but also for lifelong learning and societal contributions.

The work follows the guiding Principles of Integrated STEM, a joint document authored by Advance CTE, Association of State Supervisors of Mathematics (ASSM), Council of State Science Supervisors (COSSS), and International Technology and Engineering Educators Association (ITEEA), in collaboration with the STEM Leadership Alliance in defining the principles of Integrated STEM:

  • Principle 1: Integrated STEM education should advance the learning of each individual STEM discipline

  • Principle 2: Integrated STEM education should provide logical and authentic connections between and across the individual STEM disciplines

  • Principle 3: Integrated STEM education should serve as a bridge to STEM careers

“We don’t want to just increase the number of American students in STEM. We want to make sure everybody is involved,” – President Barack Obama

To grow our nation’s science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) capacity and ensure that American’s can participate in the future workforce, STEM is the core of our economy. Adding to the near-term urgency, a National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine report predicts a shortfall of nearly 3.4 million skilled technical workers by 2022. According to the Southern Regional Education Board, Covid-19 has accelerated automation by 5 years, meaning 30% of work activities could be automated by 2025. Expanding the diversity and inclusivity of science and engineering is vital to the future of the America’s prosperity. It is in the nation’s interest that all Americans, including the two in three U.S. adults who do not have a bachelor’s degree, have the opportunity to participate in and benefit from our scientific and technological progress (IEEE 2020).

Former President Barack Obama stated, “We don’t want to just increase the number of American students in STEM. We want to make sure everybody is involved,” said during remarks at the fifth annual White House Science Fair. “That means reaching out to boys and girls, men and women of all races and all backgrounds. Science is for all of us. And we want our classrooms and labs and workplaces and media to reflect that” (2015).

Equity for All

Let’s begin with understanding why integrated STEM is so important. Throughout the United States, educators have witnessed inequalities in American schools for decades and the alarming achievement gap arising from the widening socioeconomic disparity (Howard, 2015; Howard, Rodriguez-Scheel, 2017; Ladson-Billings, 2006; Milner, 2013, 2015; Ravitch, 2016). Students of color have disproportionately have received a devalued education. This stems from available resources, teacher efficacy, and educator professional development. The “equity” component demands that teachers foster all students’ academic success/competency by bridging the achievement gap between White students and students of color (Paris, 2012; Paris & Alim, 2014). Under the umbrella of asset-, equity-oriented pedagogy, there are five interrelated theoretical strands: community cultural wealth (Yosso, 2005), funds of knowledge (Moll et al., 2005), funds of identity (Esteban-Guitart & Moll, 2014a), authentic caring (Valenzuela, 1999, 2016), and culturally relevant pedagogy (Gay, 2010). These elements combine to cultivate the praxis for critical transformative pedagogy (Lopez & Olan, 2019; Souto-Manning, 2019) and assist in the development of asset-, equity-, and justice-oriented pedagogy in teacher education (see Figure 1).

STEM is an acronym that has been thrown into almost every conversation when discussing education or jobs and careers. Schools and districts jumped on the band wagon because funding was connected to STEM but not much was changing in terms of the approach to teaching STEM. STEM became about Project Based Learning, Maker Spaces, Coding, Robots, and the list can go on and on. This term STEM, science, technology, engineering, and mathematics is commonly believed to have been first coined by Dr. Judith Ramaley during her tenure as Director of the Education and Human Resources directorate of the National Science Foundation from 2001-2004. STEM has been further amplified by the both the Common Core State Standards for Mathematics (CCSSM) and the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) because they have called for more and deeper connections among the STEM subjects. STEM needs to be explored beyond just this acronym. Too often, school systems teach STEM subjects in silos. Many teachers have holes in their own subject content knowledge (Stinson et al., 2009) and asking math and science teachers to teach another subject may create new knowledge gaps and challenges (Stinson et al., 2009). As a result, science is not coordinated with engineering and not connected to the real-world. Educators typically, look at their own view of what it important based on their discipline, educators do not embrace what their colleagues are doing in other disciplines. Therefore, SLA and SHN will leverage proven practices and develop a broad model that will support educators through professional development, assessing existing structures, and building leadership capacity to connect disciplines including STEM, but also literacy, art, social studies, and other disciplines as well as, to create a true integrated STEM learning environment.

Proven Practices: Leveraging Partners to Support Educators Through Professional Development

Especially, in this new world, teachers need to work with each other. Businesses are demanding a workforce with STEM skills. The United States (US) struggles with a shortage of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) workers, and that shortage is projected to grow in the near future. Several business majors, such as information security, operations analysts, and business intelligence, are among the fastest-growing STEM occupations (USDOL, n.d.). As the president of the Advisors on Science and Technology Council stated, “Economic projections point to a need for approximately 1 million more STEM professionals than the US will produce at the current rate over the next decade if the country is to retain its historical preeminence in science and technology” (President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, 2012, para.

This leads to why this work is so important. SHN has worked in Milwaukee, Boston and now is currently working with the NAACP in District 7, 28, and 29 in New York City that is changing STEM from an acronym to an understanding that subjects need to connect the classroom to the real world.

How does the partnership work?

The STEM Leadership Alliance is a collaborative that formed in 2018. The goal was to bring expertise from the respective STEM fields to build a collaborative focused on an interdisciplinary approach that made not just each organization stronger together, but also supported African American and Latino students in understanding the connections of STEM and that STEM does not exist within one discipline. The objectives of the partnership will promote integrated STEM through a collective impact model based on the three principles of integrated STEM. The work supports a strong integrated STEM ecosystem at the local, state, and national level that enables all preK-12 educators, higher education, parents, non-profits, museums, and business/industry to better understand, navigate, and collaboratively plan and deliver integrated STEM education. This will also cultivate leaders’ integrated STEM skills through effective models and strategies in order to close the STEM skills gap so African American and Latino students can be successful in school and college and/or careers while making sense of their world. It bridges the divide between education and industry and enhance industry-education collaboration at regional, state, and national levels. The work will build the capacity of educators as a district, state, and national integrated STEM leaders. Finally, this will provide real-world, application-based, interactive STEM integration experiences for leaders in STEM.

The second component of the partnership is with the STEM Happens Network. SHN supports states, districts, and schools to improve equity and access through an integrated STEM approach. SHN is committed to providing support to schools, districts, and states in order to transform, the implementation of integrated STEM curriculum across the content areas preparing students with the skills necessary to be successful at every level of their academic journey and in life. SHN will support the development of an interdisciplinary STEM professional learning community that enhances a cohesive teaching and learning environment, providing African American and Latino students with opportunities to gain experience with real-world applications that leads to a trans-disciplinary culture. SHN believes this creates a lever to implement a culture of change within schools and districts providing true college and career readiness for African American and Latino students. SHN has developed a bench of experts and organizations (including the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM), the International Technology and Engineering Education Association (ITEEA), past presidents of the National Science Teaching Association (NSTA), and American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE)), that all share the common vision and work collaboratively to ensure that educators receive high-quality training, tools, and resources that will support an interdisciplinary approach that benefits ALL students.

The third partner is with, the NAACP. President Hazel Dukes of the NAACP New York State Conference of Branches has founded the Connect the Kids Education Equity Education Initiative. The unique education is a uniquely designed education plan designed to address the following fundamental goals:

▪ Close the Digital Divide with the latest communications technologies

▪ Apply New Technology – Based Learning via Educational Software

▪ Provide professional development to connect the learning across all subject areas.

Among its high-priority goals, the NAACP New York State Conference of Branches continually works to ensure that all disadvantaged students and students of color remain on the path to college and/or a successful career by ensuring access to innovative teaching, full and proper learning resources, and a challenging curriculum. In order to do this, it is about building the capacity of the educator and changing the culture of the school and district. So, in order to support students, there is a need to support educators.

Creating a STEM Culture: Goals and Metrics

The goals of the partnerships aims to leverage collaboration in order for schools and districts to develop integrated STEM units of instruction in order to improve student outcomes in numeracy, literacy, and science. SHN will assess the professional development, survey the students and teachers to offer authentic feedback, provide an annual progress report, conduct assessments, and analyze student performance data in ELA, Mathematics, and Science for each grade level involved in the work.

The metrics focus on access to quality instructional materials and resources as the foundation for an integrated STEM-centered school, but human capital creates the learning environment, based on trans-disciplinary instruction that fosters critical thinking, innovation and 21st century skills. The result will be higher performance in student outcomes, improved attendance rates, and graduation rates. SHN uses the following process to build an evaluation that leads to integrated STEM across the content areas. The first step is for the schools and districts to complete the SHN STEMness Rubric that assesses where the school/district is in relation to STEM. The Curriculum and Instructional Planning and Reflection Tool will be used to review the current curriculum, what professional development is provided and what additional tools and resources the school have. (Note: SHN supports existing curriculum. Far too often, curriculum is viewed as the answer, when it is a tool, it is understanding how to use additional tools and resources to build the best curricula that is culturally relevant and meets the needs of students). The schools will identify partner teachers (suggested a literacy, numeracy, and science teacher, additional disciplines encouraged). Also, the principal will engage to deepen his knowledge in STEM, assessing integrated STEM across the content areas, and creating instructional leaders, as well as, participate alongside their teachers for key learnings. As the work progresses, non-evaluative school visits (virtual and eventually in person) using the Danielson Framework focusing on 1e, 3b, 3c, 3d will be conducted to assess the needs of the teachers and the school.

The project outputs and milestones for educators include deepening understanding of NGSS and current numeracy and literacy standards, leveraging the Framework for Teaching, understanding how and why feedback is essential, using NGSS integration of the Three-Dimensions, building an integrated unit of study, using the 5E Instructional model, creating Integrated Lesson Plans, and using data, both formative and summative. Rather than compartmentalizing the skills and mindsets of curiosity, self-reflection, and sense of purpose this must be incorporated into the existing curricula. This will lead to the collection of metrics that will be collected through surveys, standardized test scores in science, mathematics, and literacy, structured observations, teacher participation in professional development, and teacher implementation of units and lessons. The data collected will be used to drive sustainability and scale the work across the country by showcasing the work through the STEM Leadership Alliance.

The Power of Partnerships

Kelli List Wells is the Founder and CEO of the STEM Leadership Alliance. A collaboration she built that includes the major STEM organizations, NASA, and the White House Office and Science Technology Policy, along with schools, districts, state department of educations, businesses, colleges and universities, and nonprofits. Individually, these leading STEM organizations advance the work of educators and students across the country, together we are changing STEM from an acronym to connecting the classroom to the real-world. Prior to her current role, she was the Executive Director for Global Education and Skills at the GE Foundation. She designed and executed a portfolio that focused on building education, skills and training initiatives to prepare the next generation for the demands of the workforce and the changing labor economy both nationally and globally. She has done extensive work in the PreK-12 education systems which has reached more than 10,000 teachers and 1.3 million students across more than 2,000 PreK-12 public schools, and has also saved school districts more than $20 million. She expanded the work to include higher education institutions and workforce development programs because she saw the growing skills gap. This led to her development of the Brilliant Career Labs, first-of-its-kind, physical and virtual learning experiences that help students explore careers and understand the skills required for the jobs of the future using digital fabrication and she secured the Boston Celtics to be a partner. Prior to COVID-19, she led national convenings with over 325 leaders in STEM education that have included 28 states represented and 4 countries, as well as, global education Summits including the first-ever Asia Integrated STEM Leadership Alliance that occurred in the Philippines. When COVID-19 occurred, she continued to move integrated STEM work globally. This past summer she organized a virtual integrated STEM Summit with over 600 participants, 45 states, and 20 countries. She continues to work with schools, districts, states, and countries to not only promote, but also develop action plans to revolutionize how STEM is being taught.

Through her background in Six Sigma, social emotional trainings, and extensive leadership development courses, List Wells is known for leading strategic planning processes, developing leaders, and building collaborative cultures. Prior to her experience in corporate philanthropy, List Wells was a licensed financial advisor, holding her Series 7 and Series 63 Investment licenses with Charles Schwab where she designed and created seminars on financial planning. She is also a member of various non-profit organizations. She currently serves on the Center for Supportive Schools and the Philippines based organization Ci-STEM (Center for Integrated STEM). She was on the Massachusetts STEM Advisory Council, an appointment by the Governor. and the board of directors for the Bridgeport Public Education Foundation and the Women in Manufacturing. She served on the Stamford, Connecticut Mayor’s Council for Early Childhood Readiness that provided high quality PreK for all 3 and 4-year-old children. List Wells studied International Relations and Japanese at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and continued her education at Nanzan University in Nagoya, Japan.

Dr. Salvador Fernandez is a proven leader in STEM education, having designed and led the school achievement effort (also known as the turnaround plan) at the New York City Department of Education, which has achieved positive results. He previously held the positions of Principal of I.S. 52 in District 6 Manhattan, Director of School Quality in the Office of Accountability for the New York City Department of Education and Director of School Assessment and Improvement for District 5. Dr. Fernandez earned national recognition for his vision and commitment to education reform. Dr. Fernandez is a New York City public school graduate, and has spent over 40 years in the field of education. In his time as principal of I.S. 52, Dr. Fernandez established partnerships with the General Electric Foundation, the National Science Teachers Association and NASA to promote teacher leadership in STEM education. Dr. Fernandez is a strong advocate for life-long learning; he currently serves as a member of the New Rochelle Board of Education in New Rochelle, NY. He is also a member of the board directors of It Takes a Village to Educate a Child.

Dr. Fernandez received his Master of Science degree from Hunter College. Soon after he acquired his educational administration certificate from City College of New York. Dr. Fernandez was also selected to participate in the Chancellor’s Incentive Doctoral Program where he graduated from St. John’s University in 2002 with highest honors.

The Road to a Transdisciplinary Approach to Learning

The process starts with shifting the culture and mindset of the school. Teachers’ engaging in teaching integrated STEM are likely to benefit greatly from a growth mindset, a mindset that is aligned with perceptions of lifelong learning (Dweck, 2010). Transforming the process from a myopic point of view, where only their content matters, to a culture that embraces the learning from and with colleagues across all disciplines. Nationwide, African American and Latino students are least likely to have access to quality STEM instruction and are more likely to experience negative cultural stereotypes and assumptions such as a lack of intellectual ability in math and science (Hutchinson, 2014). This has led to a fixed mindset regarding STEM skills and a diminished sense of confidence in African American and Latino’s STEM ability (Bright, 2017).

Using STEM education as an integrated approach with the various disciplines into a cohesive teaching and learning model, provides students, especially African American and Latino students, the opportunities to make sense of the world around them. It focuses on rigorous academic concepts connected with real-world experiences in which students apply science, technology, engineering and mathematics in numerous contexts to make connections between school, community and the world. An interdisciplinary approach to education in a school becomes the “Culture of Change” as we begin the shift to “transdisciplinary”.

Transdisciplinary Approach: What does this mean?

• Disciplinary: Students learn concepts and skills separately in each discipline.

• Multi-Disciplinary: Students learn concepts and skills separately in each discipline, but in a reference to a common theme.

• Interdisciplinary: Students learn concepts and skills from two or more disciplines that are tightly linked to deepen knowledge and skills.

• Transdisciplinary: Students learn concepts and skills by undertaking real world problems or projects and students apply knowledge and skills from two or more disciplines and help shape the learning experience

When African American and Latino students begin to understand the connection between the classroom and the real-world, a growth mindset is developed. They then begin to truly own their learning because the learning environment has expanded beyond the school walls. They have a sense of purpose and direction that is developed by curiosity and creativity. Students learn more when learning is organized around real projects, problems or explaining phenomena.

There are two components to a transdisciplinary approach to learning. Access to quality instructional materials and resources are the foundation for a STEM centered school, but human capital creates a learning environment, based on transdisciplinary instruction that fosters problem solvers, critical thinking, innovation and 21st century skills. Building the capacity of the educator to understand not just the content but the application provides an equitable learning environment.

SHN uses the following steps that leads to integrated STEM across the content areas. The first step is to conduct a listening tour that involves the district, schools, parents, students and the community to develop an understanding of how STEM is being taught and how STEM is viewed. Often times, the word STEM is viewed as a project and not a way to connect the classroom to the real-world. Next, each school completes the SHN STEMness Rubric that assesses where the school is in relation to STEM. Is it providing an equitable learning environment for ALL students? Is it differentiated? Then, SHN conducts non-evaluative school visits (virtual and in person) to assess the needs of the teachers and the school. Each school will be provided with the SHN Curriculum and Instructional Planning and Reflection Tool to inform what is the current curriculum used, what professional development is provided and what additional tools and resources does the school have. (Note: SHN supports teachers using their existing curriculum). Once these steps are completed, then the schools identify partner teachers (suggested a literacy, numeracy, and science teacher, additional disciplines encouraged per grade level) at each school to engage in the integrated STEM learning journey. Also, principals for each participating school will engage in the integrated STEM workshops and will have specialized learning on how to observe an integrated STEM classroom and provide support to the teachers to enhance their pedagogy. Parents are also involved in the process. SHN provides workshops to explain the learning journey and why integrated STEM is important.

Integrated STEM Roadmap

The learning journey starts with schools and districts understanding Leadership Development for the 21st Century. In order to change the school/district culture, it begins with looking at the vision and mission. Does the entire school community understand the direction of the school/district? Starting with these steps then allows for the development of a strategic plan that provides a roadmap for shifting from a siloed approach to teaching to a collaborative model integrating all the subject areas. Reflecting on the needs of the African American and Latino (and girls and boys) students in each community must inform the strategic plan.

Educators then go into understanding the importance of notebooking. Notebooking (physical or digital) is a strategy for students to express their learning, make observations, and hypothesis, and support their evidence-based writing. This is extremely important for African American and Latino students in supporting their understanding and making real-word connections. Through notebooking, teachers will learn how to engage students to develop a variety of skills – listening skills, narration skills, organization skills, artistic skills, and more. The combining effect of these skills will support students to select the most important and interesting information from a study and learn how to organize the information. This is a simple way for educators to understand how content connects across disciplines.

As educators continue to build their knowledge, the next component is to explore the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). Focusing on NGSS and the Three-Dimensions of Science and Engineering Practices, Cross-Cutting Concepts, and Disciplinary Core Ideas. The integration of rigorous content and application reflects how science and engineering is practiced in the real world. This feeds into understanding the difference between disciplinary literacy and literacy across the content areas. In content area reading, we use reading and writing to study/learn information, while in disciplinary reading we must ask how does literacy help us make meaning within a discipline. Content area literacy is concerned with addressing the unique content of each discipline. Texts are introduced into each subject area so students are familiar with subject-unique content. While this engages students in the topic it does not always draw connections. Disciplinary literacy, on the other hand, is concerned with connecting reading and writing about content across subject areas and texts should be introduced to teach students how to think in different ways. The value of disciplinary literacy is it provides the ability for African American and Latino students to think and connect the content. It allows for them to make culturally relevant connections. Strengthening student disciplinary literacy is the glue that allows for the sciences to mingle with the literacy, mathematics, arts, social studies, music, etc. in a way that provides access to all types of learners and not just students who favor math and science.

Once the foundation is developed, educators will begin to create an integrated STEM unit of instruction by putting all of the components together. Teachers will leverage the existing curriculum, the current standards, and the alignment of literacy and math standards, as well as other resources. To ensure that teachers are allowing access to all learners, time must be spent looking at how to scaffold assessment and text so that the curriculum invites African American and Latino students. Tools like the Depth of Knowledge, DOK, rubric to assess the complexity of our tasks and to “line them up” on the scale to develop rigor are used. Also, using text complexity gradient to assess the texts teachers are introducing to African American and Latino students such as vocabulary, sentence structure, and knowledge demands that are also culturally relevant. These tools, along with a mathematical task analysis guide and create equity for all learners as they bring learners in at their place of comfort, creating access for all. Planning like this requires training and working within a professional learning community to learn and practice strategies.

Once the unit is designed, using the 5E template (Bibbey) educators can begin to design lesson plans that will include storylines that will incrementally connect the learning. The 5E model of planning (Bibbey) focuses on breaking down the myth that a lesson plan is something that lasts 45 minutes (silo approach); using the 5E model and thinking beyond one class period, students will have a strong framework within which to connect core ideas. Teachers need to be exposed to model lesson plans, decoand nstruct them together (teachers and administrators), and during classroom walkthroughs, helping teachers create strong libraries to use resources effectively and essential skills that need to be incorporated in units and lessons. Teachers and supervisors need to work vertically, and be given the opportunities (along with the tools!) to visit with each other while the work is happening to provide real time feedback (this occurs in a virtual or in-person environment).


The partnership with the STEM Leadership Alliance, the STEM Happens Network and the NAACP is transforming education beyond the four walls and making meaning for students how to connect the content that they are learning. Subjects taught in silo, disconnect the learning for students, which is detrimental to ALL students. A curriculum that is not culturally relevant and does not hook the students, causes more harm than good. The approach of the work will revolutionize the way educators’ practice, from an isolated manner, to a collaborative manner that allows students to connect subjects and the classroom to the real-world.

Written by Kelli List Wells


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