Maine’s STEM renaissance: opportunities for partnership among K-12 schools and non-formal education programs

This week I am pleased to share the following guest post from Ryder Scott, Program Director at Bryant Pond 4-H Camp and Learning Center. Ryder Scott is Program Director at the University of Maine 4-H Center at Bryant Pond.  Ryder has been teaching and leading groups of young people and adults in the outdoors for fifteen years.

. . . “If you’ve been paying attention at all to education in the past year, you’ve noticed we are in the midst of a “STEM Renaissance.” Having been an educator in non-formal outdoor and environmental education programs for nearly twenty years, I have participated with keen interest in the unveiling and promotion of the Framework for K-12 Science Education. With Maine’s unique status as a lead state piloting of the Next Generation Science Standards, combined with the 2010 adoption of the Maine State Environmental Literacy Plan, we are poised to take a leadership role in creative, engaging STEM education. In addition, Maine has an amazing asset in the dozens of quality non-formal science education programs working with schools across the State. As current president of the Maine Environmental Education Association, I am privileged to work with organizations such as Friends of the Cobbossee Watershed, Project Learning Tree, Maine Audubon and many other providers of innovative non-formal science programming.

The release of the Framework for K-12 Science last fall signaled a subtle, but important shift in science education – not so much in content, but toward an increased focus on science and engineering Practices. The message is clear: in order to prepare learners for the challenges of the 21st Century, transfer of information is no longer enough. Our focus must also be on building the capacity for engagement, discovery, and wonder that practicing scientists and engineers know leads to innovation and solutions to real challenges of sustainability. The Framework states: “A rich science education has the potential to capture students’ sense of wonder about the world and so spark their desire to continue learning about science throughout their lives. Research suggests that personal interest, experience, and enthusiasm – critical to children’s learning of science at school or other settings – may also be linked to later educational and career choices.”

At the University of Maine 4-H Center at Bryant Pond, we specialize igniting the “sense of wonder” about the world. From our University of Maine 4-H Center, we are working with young people and their teachers and administrators to build the kind of enthusiasm for science and engineering — combined with civic engagement — that the Framework envisions.

An example is our partnership with RSU 17 in nearby Oxford Hills. With the support of superintendent Rick Colpits and curriculum director Kathy Elkins, teachers across the district have been encouraged to think of Bryant Pond as the “Outdoor Classroom” for the district. The results are encouraging. This school year, thirty-six underperforming Oxford Hills Middle School 7th and 8th graders participated in an experiential STEM- focused program where 20% of instructional time was conducted at Bryant Pond’s 4-H outdoor Learning Center. Attendance records compared to the ’10-’11 school year showed a net gain of over 500 hours of instruction time as a result of higher levels of engagement. The students made similar gains in academic achievement. The previous academic year, pass rates in science hovered around 58%. This year, using cross-disciplinary, experiential approaches that mirror the Framework’s focus on Science and Engineering Practices, and Crosscutting Concepts, 100% of students in this group are passing, not only science, but also Language Arts, Social Studies, and Mathematics.

Strengthening partnerships among K-12 school systems and non-formal education programs is key to effective implementation of vision of the Framework, and the Next Generation Science Standards. The STEM Renaissance we are experiencing in Maine has real potential to build a new generation of engaged, scientifically literate citizens prepared to lead the State toward a sustainable economy, community and environment.”