How to create scalable solutions to address the STEM crisis

We must respond by creating and supporting scalable STEM programs that produce results

STEM-scalable-solutionsTransforming STEM education and, as a result, the U.S. workforce, will require more than homegrown or one-off localized programs. This is a national challenge that requires scalable and sustainable solutions.

We must focus on high-quality, integrated, activity-, project-, and problem-based programs that work, and then take those programs to scale. All children deserve a quality education that will help them develop the skills they’ll need to be successful in the global economy.

So the question is: what is necessary to create scalable, sustainable organizations?

Scalability is a complex issue–one that can’t be answered with a simple step-by-step list. To be scalable, an organization must first be sustainable, generating operating revenue that helps reduce the philanthropic support gap.

Dependence upon philanthropic support makes an organization vulnerable, challenging it to raise more capital to expand, or even sustain, operations. Taking an organization to scale requires leadership, a clear vision dedicated to innovation and continuous improvement, and alignment of resources that allows an organization to stay accountable to and focused on its mission.

Despite the complexity, a few key elements must exist for a program to transform STEM education and the STEM workforce: 1) engaging and effective curriculum; 2) high-quality training for teachers, school leaders and organizational staff; 3) infrastructure to support growth; and 4) engaged partners.

Curriculum matters. We must provide students with curriculum that is engaging and relevant. Students inevitably ask, “Why do we have to learn this?” We fail them if our best answer is “because it’s on the test.” And we must get to them early. The sooner students can be introduced to the hands-on, practical application of these subjects, the more likely they are to develop interest in STEM.

(Next page: Scaling the STEM crisis with Project Lead The Way)

That’s why Project Lead The Way (PLTW), the nonprofit I lead, offers programs for students in grades K-12. But it’s not enough to just offer programs – the programs must work. Many organizations lack research and measurable student outcomes and the systems to collect performance data. And unfortunately, some organizations present a piece-meal approach rather than ensuring the quality controls that schools, teachers and students need and deserve. That’s why programs that achieve positive results in an isolated implementation suffer quality degradation as they attempt to scale.

High-quality, continuous professional development for teachers is a critical piece in protecting against quality degradation, ensuring that high-quality curriculum is maintained throughout every school and every classroom. STEM is a way of learning, not just a compilation of subjects. And so teachers must have not only the content knowledge, but also the skills to teach with confidence in a project-based classroom. This is a fundamental shift in the way many teachers teach – moving from disseminators of knowledge to the role of coach and facilitator, guiding students through their learning.

Scalability also requires appropriate technology and staffing infrastructure. For instance, PLTW implemented a learning management system – Instructure’s Canvas LMS – to deliver curriculum digitally and provide real-time updates for teachers and students. Significant investments have also been made in staffing to continuously improve our programs and to provide face-to-face, localized and on-demand support to schools.

Nevertheless, this work cannot be done alone. More than just funding, transformative STEM education requires deep partnerships that can connect students to role models and send clear signals to students that STEM is critical to their future success. From colleges and universities, to local businesses and Fortune 500 companies, there are numerous examples of engaged organizations that clearly understand the importance of STEM education in preparing the next generation of problem-solvers, critical thinkers, collaborators and entrepreneurs.

PLTW has found that these key foundational elements are critical in creating and maintaining a scalable, high-quality, sustainable organization. We’ve grown to serve more than 6,000 schools in all 50 states. We’ve trained thousands of teachers. We’ve engaged with hundreds of post-secondary institutions, nonprofit organizations and Fortune 500 partners, including Chevron, Lockheed Martin, Kern Family Foundation and Autodesk, to ensure that students receive the highest quality STEM curriculum, and that teachers are equipped with the tools to support student learning.

And it has worked. Three dozen independent studies on PLTW, including a November 2012 University of Virginia white paper, conclude that PLTW students consistently outperform their peers and that employers are recruiting these students. Furthermore, we were honored to be recognized by Change the Equation – a CEO-led organization – as one of four high-quality, scalable STEM organizations.

President Obama, congress, governors, mayors and business leaders across America and across all-sectors understand that STEM education is critical for our students and our nation’s prosperity. They have issued the challenge. We must respond by creating and supporting scalable STEM programs that produce results.

Vince Bertram, PhD, is the president and CEO of Project Lead The Way, a national nonprofit organization dedicated to STEM curriculum and teacher training. Connect with him on Twitter @vincebertram.

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