18 Ways to Power Learner-Centered STEM Partnerships

Sometimes learning science in schools means reading from a textbook, memorizing the periodic table or building yet another baking soda and vinegar volcano.
Other times, learning science means building and sending a weather balloon more than 100,000 feet into near-space with your classmates, launching a rocket with NASA or constructing a solar car with the help of professional mechanics and engineers, and then racing it at the Texas Motor Speedway.

The latter is the case at Harmony Public Schools–the 46 schools at the center of our series Learner-Centered STEM. In partnership with Harmony, so far we’ve discovered and shared 11 key elements of the STEMSOS model and the implications for students, teachers and leaders in their unique project-based, deeper learning environment.
But it’s not just the kids and adults inside the schools that make Learner-Centered STEM a reality. Learner-Centered STEM takes powerful partnerships with people outside classroom walls. Here are 18 examples of partnerships from Harmony that we hope will inform and inspire you to create powerful partnerships in your own school or district.
1. Create a STEM Advisory Board that draws on various sections of the community like business leaders, technical experts, teachers, professors, engineers, researchers, etc. Consider holding monthly or bi-monthly meetings like Harmony.
2. Establish ongoing professional partnerships with local and regional businesses with STEM expertise. Harmony partnerships include Lockheed Martin, Bell Helicopter, Texas Instruments and Bechtel. Harmony has also established a partnership with the Army Educational Outreach Program (AEOP). A recent presentation from Dr. Ryan, GEMS Program Coordinator at the U.S. Army Institute of Surgical Research, served as a tool for information and recruiting to the the GEMS program which places students into selective summer programs. Over the past two summers, more than a dozen Harmony middle school students were chosen to participate in this selective program.
3. Form an MOU with at least one local college to create dual credit offerings for students and to give students access to field experts such as professors, university researchers and labs.
4. Leverage business and industry for mentors, project-consultants, internship hosts, etc. As described above, a recent Harmony example is the solar car project in which students are trained by mechanics and engineers to learn the required skills to build the car. Students pictured right are visiting Tesla Motors for an electric car project.
5. Invite the community to volunteer at exhibitions, fairs and other events.
6. Communicate opportunities for student presentations to the local community.
7. Create extracurricular activities and clubs in partnership with business and industry. Harmony partnerships include NASA and Bechtel, who provide mentors to work with students in robotics programs or rocketry programs and other high student-interest areas outside the regular school day.
8. Organize a fundraiser to generate dollars for STEM internships and activities. Harmony’s first annual Gem Ball organized by the Advisory Board Committee raised $8,000 for summer internships this year.
9. Invite industry aHSA-High SSEP Team.pngnd field experts to act as judges during events and competitions that will provide high-quality feedback that will improve student learning. Create opportunities for students to participate in national STEM competitions for additional motivation. Harmony Science Academy in Houston is among only 18 schools in the U.S. and Canada to be involved in this year’s Student Spaceflight Experiment Program (SSEP). SSEP teams design experiments and write research proposals for testing scientific phenomena in a weightless, micro-gravity environment. The HSA-High has around 80 teams each writing their own research proposals which is nearly the entire school competing for a spot to ship their experiment to the International Space Station for six months and present their findings at the National Smithsonian Museum in Washington, DC.
10. Connect teachers to field experts for reviewing and helping to design STEM projects, rubrics and evaluation tools.
11. Keep an open door policy. Invite policy-makers and influencers into your schools to see learner-centered STEM in action.
12. Focus on authentic career preparation early and often. Hold “Career Day” activities and invite participants to share insights into their careers and related training through in-person or virtual presentations. One such event at Harmony was the two-day Viva Technology event in partnership with Shell Oil engineers and Great Minds in STEM, and with volunteer college students from University of Houston and Rice University. Students, parents and teachers learned about STEM fields and the steps necessary to succeed in them. Harmony also creates space for students to take advantage of opportunities. One example includes the partnership with INROADS–which allows students to learn more about corporate internship opportunities and how to get placed in paid positions out of high school.
ConocoPhillips.JPG13. Get learners out into real-life lab settings. A recent Harmony example involved field trips to the Environmental Protection Agency lab and Conoco Phillips office. Students had a chance to see a government-operated institution and lab, then compare it to a privately owned and operated company. Students were able to compare and contrast approaches to foundational environmental concepts and implementation of sustainable practices. Other Harmony examples include students attending forensic technologies training at the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) labs.
14. Make “outreach” a job description. Harmony has a dedicated staff member at every campus whose job is to reach out to the community to share opportunities and build relationships.
15. Remember parents are among your biggest assets. The PTO/PTA should be one of your most important organizations. At Harmony, this means parents support academics and event coordination. Invite parents with jobs in STEM fields to work with their own children and their peers. This can range from the parent who is a certified welder to the parent who is the university engineering professor.
16. Inform and empower parents through parent education nights, so they can in turn support their students. Harmony has learned that parents engage when those schools reach out to them in meaningful ways, such as providing a parent night that cover the ins and outs of financial aid applications at the high school level or by hosting other schools for an academic competition.
17. Invite the community (and not just parents) to showcases, events and exhibitions to learn from students and to celebrate their successes.
18. Don’t reinvent the wheel; just keep improving it. Share resources across your school, district or network. Catalog and share best practices, then create ways to share them widely. Create opportunities for peer-to-peer learning among teachers and leaders in your school, district and network. At Harmony, this means teacher-led professional development, strong professional learning communities and lots of opportunities to build teacher leadership.
The six blogs in our Harmony Public Schools series to date show that Learner-Centered STEM takes commitment. But schools and districts don’t have to do everything at once. It’s taken more than a decade for Harmony to build the STEMSOS model that allows the network to get the impressive outcomes it does. Stay tuned for our final blog in this series in the coming weeks that will share insights from Harmony’s founder and CEO Dr. Soner Tarim.
For more see:

This post is a part of a blog series in the upcoming “Getting Smart on Learner-Centered STEM” Smart Bundle produced in partnership with Harmony Public Schools (@HarmonyEDU). Join the conversation on Twitter using #STEMSOS.

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