10/28/2015 02:34 pm ET Updated Oct 28, 2016

Building a STEM Education Ecosystem in Baltimore

Across the country, school districts, informal educators, non-profit organizations, and entire communities are mobilizing to enhance STEM learning opportunities for America's youth. Rarely in the history of American education have we witnessed such focused energy towards enriching curriculum, especially in the STEM fields. A quick Google search for STEM grants yields millions of dollars in opportunities from philanthropic organizations, private industry, the federal government, and defense contractors. Last spring, President Obama hosted the fifth annual White House Science Fair, and announced an additional $240 million in private-sector commitments to STEM education programming, thus bringing the President's "Innovate to Educate" campaign total to over $1 billion. It is not hard to explain why the nation's focus has shifted so staggeringly towards STEM given the global stakes, the opportunities, and the fundamental shift in how we as a country are doing business. What is difficult, however, is capturing this tidal force of resources and energy in an equitable fashion that will provide the best outcomes for all youth.

In Baltimore City, STEM equity is the underlying principal that drives many community-based efforts. Director of the Maryland Out of School Time (MOST) Network, Ellie Mitchell, sees access to quality STEM learning opportunities - in and out of school - as the "civil rights issue of our time." The statistics are alarming: despite the large-scale, national push to promote STEM education, women and people of color account for 28% and 10% of the nation's science and engineering workers respectively. In Maryland, only 258 African-American and Latino students, and 323 female students took the AP Computer Science Exam out of 1,629 total participants in 2013. These data tell us that, despite the greatest educational resource mobilization in American history, traditionally underserved populations are still being left out.

Baltimore is no stranger to opportunity inequality, and approaching such a deeply entrenched issue requires creative solutions. In 2014, the MOST Network published Landscaping Baltimore's STEM Ecosystem, which provided a snapshot of STEM in Baltimore. The findings of the landscape analysis described dozens of quality STEM opportunities throughout the city, but through teacher and administrator interviews, it became clear that career relevance and awareness were lacking. According to one administrator, "our students don't see the local opportunities...this is where I think the next step needs to be." The opportunities this administrator referenced are legion. According to the Economic Alliance of Greater Baltimore, the Baltimore-Washington region is the number one employer of information technology workers, and Baltimore itself is the sixth most concentrated metropolitan area for cyber security professionals with Washington DC, thirty miles to the south, ranking first.

As a direct result of the initial research and recommendations, a new initiative in Baltimore is coalescing around these very topics: how a community of stakeholders can make STEM experiences more equitable and relevant. The solution lies in the creation of a city-wide STEM ecosystem. This ecosystem initiative harnesses the energy around STEM education, and unifies its stakeholders towards the common goal of unlocking the city's resources to create pathways for students to pursue STEM careers. Communities around the country are looking towards an ecosystem model - as described in great detail by Kathleen Traphagen and Saskia Traill in How Cross-Sector Collaborations are Advancing STEM Learning - as a way to create advance STEM pathways for all students. The Traphagen & Traill publication identifies STEM learning ecosystems as "intentionally support[ing] those youth historically underrepresented in foster diverse and inter-connected STEM learning experiences." This year, twenty-seven communities have been selected by the STEM Funders Network in the inaugural STEM Learning Ecosystems Initiative.

Baltimore's ecosystem is comprised of philanthropists, non-profit educators, institutions of higher education, city schools, and representation from local STEM industry. First, the group will work to define STEM competencies relevant to the region's employers. For instance, Maryland has thousands of open jobs - while anticipating thousands more - in the field of computer science. Local industry can inform non-profit, afterschool, informal, and formal educators of the requirements and competencies expected of students entering the job market. Second, the Ecosystem will work to expand and sustain local programs that instill these competencies. Students throughout the city are developing skills in 3D printing, coding, and electronics, but this often occurs in informal education spaces. The MOST Network is an active partner in the Digital Badges Initiative, and will this year partner with the Mayor's Office of Employment Development to pair "badged" students with tech internships. Finally, the Ecosystem will offer a sustainable guide to STEM resources and increase the access and communication of information to families.

In order for America to lead the world in STEM education and innovation, it must ensure that all of its students are included and engaged. Thus far America has failed to do so, and only now are community initiatives filling the gaps of access. Baltimore is home to a robust technology economy alongside schools and programs that have yet to truly operate in conjunction. The Baltimore STEM Ecosystem initiative is a first step whose effects will only be known years from now. But if one sought an example on how community-based efforts are expanding STEM efforts to all students, look to Baltimore.