On April 13, 2018, Project Exploration kicked off its NSF-funded award, Project SYSTEMIC, by convening the Austin STEM Leadership Board. Our inaugural meeting took place at the new West Side STEM Learning Center, located in the George Leland Elementary School annex building.

Members of this local leadership team represent a wide range of community stakeholders, including ministry, education, social services, young adults, and community-based organizations. Collectively, the members have decades of experience working within the Austin neighborhood of Chicago, particularly in the area of STEM education.

Through our discussion, the Board members strategized on how and who to recruit a broad range of residents and stakeholders to small community meetings called problem-structuring method sessions. These sessions are the heart of Project SYSTEMIC, where community voices and perspectives drive the development of a system-wide STEM learning map for the Austin neighborhood.

Reaching Residents Through Trusted Leadership and Networks

Through our experience in community engagement and youth program recruitment, we know the importance and value of working with trusted leadership and existing networks in communities. Efforts to broadly engage more youth from communities underrepresented in the sciences often position communities as “needy” and tend to overlook the assets, resources, and expertise within the community itself. In contrast, Project SYSTEMIC’s asset-based approach positions the community as experts and problem-solvers.

Why Local Leadership Matters

Here are some of the reason why we established the Austin STEM Leadership Board for Project SYSTEMIC:

  • The community has already been working on issues of STEM education access and opportunity. We begin with the assumption that local leaders, community stakeholders, and residents have already been thinking deeply and acting to improve the STEM education landscape of the neighborhood before this project. We think this is important because the concept of broadening participation as an “intervention” lends itself to erasing the historical and current efforts of local stakeholders in resisting and challenging the social structures that impact access, equity, engagement, such as systemic racism and institutional bias.
  • STEM education is not a siloed effort. Given that the challenges to equity and access are often systemic, there is a wide range of networks and organizations that intersect with STEM education, including ministry, social service workers, daycare providers, and local businesses. Leadership from this wide range of sectors helps us ensure that we are hearing from as many voices as possible.
  • Mutual trust is key. Project Exploration has been working in the Austin community, with individual members of the Board, for over two years. Mutual trust allows us to engage with Board members as community ambassadors who will speak to residents and stakeholders at existing communities, where they are trusted leaders.

The Austin STEM Leadership Board will convene again later in the year to discuss the systems maps created by community stakeholders about the neighborhood’s STEM learning ecosystem.

Project SYSTEMIC:  A Systems-Thinking Approach to STEM Ecosystem Development in Chicago Funded by the National Science Foundation

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