Using Systems Thinking to Understand Local Perspectives on STEM Ecosystems

Over a two week period this summer, Project Exploration held 19 problem-structuring method sessions with over 100 community stakeholders from the Austin neighborhood of Chicago. These sessions are the heart of our NSF-funded award, Project SYSTEMIC, which applies systems-thinking methods and community organizing strategies to support the development of a local STEM learning ecosystem.

The sessions were facilitated by Pam Sydelko, a systems science expert with nearly 30 years experience at Argonne National Laboratory, where she directed the Systems Science Center. Each session focused on elevating particular perspectives and voices in the community, including middle school youth, ministry, local business people, teachers, community-based organizations, high school youth, daycare providers, and others. Each session generated incredible dialogue about the local STEM learning landscape and produced a systems map about STEM learning in Austin from the perspective of the participants.

Some Reflections on the Problem-Structuring Method Sessions

Some of the things we learned from the sessions with community stakeholders include:

  • The STEM learning ecosystem includes tangible and intangible things. We expected that participants would name elements such as teachers, students, schools, afterschool programs, etc. In producing the maps, many of the participants also included “intangible” elements such as universal love, empathy, compassion, fear, etc. It highlighted that efforts to broaden participation that take a strictly dominant secular worldview of STEM may be missing a perspective that is important to different communities.
  • It’s easy to exclude yourself from the system. We consistently observed that participants did not name themselves or their institutions in the system until asked to. In other words, stakeholders have a tendency to see the problem around themselves, rather than being a part of the network that may reproduce some of the inequities they are identifying. Our observations are in line with research by Dr. Megan Bang that the orientation of normative (Western) STEM discourse is to distance human beings from nature, in contrast to Indigenous approaches which tend to describe humans as part of nature. Systems thinking positions us as part of the system, rather than separate from it.
  • The community has been thinking about and responding to structural barriers for a long time. Problem structuring methods provided a structured way for us to validate and legitimize the incredible work already happening in the Austin neighborhood. By drawing upon the experiences and voices of the community, we learned how residents – from youth to older people – have been thinking about STEM learning in the face of systemic and structural barriers, such as community trauma, institutional racism, inequities in school funding, and the school-to-prison pipeline.

What’s Next?

Over the next few weeks, the 19 maps will be reviewed by the community members. In Spring 2019, Pam Sydelko will return to the Austin neighborhood to facilitate a large community conversation where the maps will be reconciled and merged to produce one large cross-sector systems map for the Austin community.

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