Building and Replicating a Community-Engaged Educational Ecosystem – a STEM Learning Commons

Danielle Wood
Associate Director for Research, Center for Civic Innovation
University of Notre Dame

Need and Project Importance. In our highly mobile and global economy, STEM-related employment is key to stabilizing and rebuilding our middle class. Attrition in STEM fields, however, is disproportionately high at all educational levels for women, African Americans, Latinos, and people from low-income families. This is critical to both equity and our competitive advantage. With the current emphasis on the knowledge-based economy, there is a growing divide between those who can and cannot engage in it. Compounding these challenges, many places in the United States, particularly deindustrialized ‘Rust Belt’ areas, struggle much more than others to attract, develop, and retain the STEM skills in their workforce. These cities often have poverty rates double the national average, lower educational attainment, and larger percentages of those underrepresented in STEM. So, while attraction, motivation and retention in STEM disciplines is a national imperative, its importance within these regions is particularly acute.

Addressing these issues requires innovation and collaboration in a way that enhances STEM learning and workforce skills, but also strengthens attraction to the region and community vitality. Rust Belt cities have an overabundance of real-world ‘grand challenges’ to engage students in transdisciplinary problem-solving and most have assets that include higher education anchor institutions. As such, a deindustrialized city in the Rust Belt region was the ideal context for the development and study of a community-engaged STEM learning environment ‘Commons’ for delivering integrated high impact practices; the initial pilot informing this replication targeted deficits with which many deindustrialized cities struggle – engagement, knowledge, skill, capacity, and economic.

Guiding Inquiry. Through replication, researchers will examine the learning and dispositional outcomes of students in these new contexts, as well explore the differences in the community context that form the STEM experiential learning environment.

Outcomes. From the IUSE Exploration and Design grant pilot, researchers examined demographic differences in the programmatic impact and found statistically significant outcomes for key factors in STEM persistence, with greater outcomes for underrepresented groups as well as indication of greater place attachment. Findings from the pilot grant be presented in the poster, as well as framing for the Level 2 replication grant.

Broader Impacts. The recent IUSE Level 2 Institutional and Community Transformation grant will transform STEM education through replicating an evidence-based approach to collaboration and supports between educational institutions at all levels, government, industry, and community organizations and stakeholders – building interdependence. The long-term aim of the model approach is the transformation of the regional STEM education approach and of the local STEM workforce profile. With a networked and layered model for student engagement that integrates summer internships, coursework, and informal learning, the C-EEEM can involve larger numbers of students in both K-12 and higher education in varying degrees of intensity. Also, by involving an intentionally diverse group of students from across the socio-economic spectrum in this collaborative, problem-solving culture, this pilot increases both the likelihood of local civic involvement and STEM retention at both secondary and post-secondary levels. The combination promises both improved and broadened participation in STEM.


Hazel Marie, Youngstown State University, Youngstown, OH; Faisal Aqlan, University of Louisville, Louisville, KY; Daniel Lapsley, University of Notre Dame, South Bend, IN; Kerry Meyers, University of Notre Dame, South Bend, IN; Jay Brockman, University of Notre Dame, South Bend, IN