By Barbara Zaragoza
In a recent survey , teenagers said science is among their favorite subjects and they understood the importance of a science education, but common teaching methods such as reading from textbooks didn’t bring the subject to life. Eighty-six percent of students suggested that exposure to sciences outside of school and knowing an adult in a science field would spark their interest in pursuing a scientific career. Only 32 percent, however, actually knew such an adult.
Proficiency in STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — has become a vital component of a successful career, particularly in San Diego where biotech, engineering and healthcare companies need employees who are ready to take on the innovation challenges of tomorrow.
While many organizations throughout San Diego County—from government and higher education institutions to libraries and parent groups—provide STEM education beyond the classroom environment, they often work in isolation or do not coordinate their efforts. As a result, many youths are unaware of what’s available to them.
A network of science-oriented organizations that collaborate strategically—including the Fleet Science Center, the San Diego County Office of Education, the San Diego Science Alliance and the YMCA—stepped in to fill this gap. In 2015, this collaborative group launched the San Diego STEM Ecosystem , which strives to realize a San Diego where everyone is connected to STEM learning opportunities. The San Diego STEM (SD STEM) Ecosystem hopes to provide students with far-reaching and equitable access to STEM education and employment.
Eric Meyer, project lead for the SD STEM Ecosystem and Assistant Director of Education for the Fleet Science Center, says, “We are trying to identify what the science education landscape looks like by asking questions, such as how we can work with companies to find out what they need, for example, in employee training, and how we can integrate that training into schools so students learn through, and are well-equipped for, real-world experiences.”
San Diego’s initiative is part of a larger STEM Ecosystem  initiative with 68 networks worldwide, including in Kenya, Israel, Mexico and Canada. With the largest number of ecosystems located in the United States, the effort was originally launched at the Clinton Global Initiative in Denver, CO.
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Meyer explains that schools are one place where STEM learning occurs; however, only five percent of our lives are actually spent in schools. The other 95 percent occurs in places like the Fleet Science Center, and similar museums, or zoos, nature centers, out-of-school programs and other educational institutions.
“We want to see multiple exposures for people throughout their day, year and life. STEM learning doesn’t just happen from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. at school. It happens at home with your parents. It happens at the skate park,” says Meyer.
One ecosystemic program piloted by the Fleet Science Center, “52 Weeks of Science ,” collaborated with lowriders in Barrio Logan to highlight relevant ways in which the community is engaging with STEM through their art—which includes engineering, design thinking, hydraulic systems and paint, for example—to honor the work as well as inspire pathways to STEM careers for youth.
“One of the things that informal science education does well is connect the interests of people to science,” Meyer says.
The SD STEM Ecosystem initiative has created six working groups  designed to work toward common goals and identify potential partners: Innovation in K–12, Early Childhood STEM, Business Partnerships, Environmental Education, Expanding Access and Women in STEM.
The Innovation in K–12 Working Group focuses on collaboration with multiple school districts, while the Early Childhood STEM group encourages science opportunities for children five and under. The Business Partnerships group seeks to match businesses with educational organizations to coordinate workforce and educational needs, and the Environmental Education group connects teachers to curricula and families to programs related to nature.
Expanding Access is the vanguard working group that addresses equitable opportunities in science for low-income students. Studies  show that low-income students have a dire lack of available science-related extracurricular activities and career-planning resources. The Expanding Access working group wants to address this disparity.
The Business Partnership working group collaborates with the Clairemont Chamber of Commerce to partner businesses with schools for conversations about the needs and resources of each.
The SD STEM Ecosystem’s sixth working group, Women in STEM, has received funding from San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E) and the San Diego Grantmakers STEAM Funders Group. Noting that women make up a mere 29 percent of the science and engineering workforce, once a month, 42 individuals representing 31 different organizations meet to discuss how women and girls can become more interested in STEM careers. In particular, they have identified the need for good mentors and role models.
Meyer explains, “The Women’s Construction Coalition has a mentorship program called the Julia Morgan Society. The Femineer program at SDSU has a mentorship component as well. Still, many people have challenges getting information out to schools and community members that mentors are available or needed. Solving for a common need is one role of the Ecosystem Central Project Office at the Fleet. Supportive funding is continuously sought to carry out that work.”
SDG&E supports initiatives like SD STEM Ecosystem to inspire future leaders to be prepared for the future workforce as engineers, scientists and innovators. Because the Fleet Science Center is a natural partner, the Fleet hosted High Tech Fair in January 2018, inviting many organizations including Qualcomm, the Birch Aquarium and General Atomics. SDG&E also participated, showcasing their Intelligrid Model, an interactive display that shows how the power grid works.
Meyer says, “Businesses have a vested interest in making sure there’s a STEM-trained workforce. Communities have a vested interest in people having more comfort and connection to STEM learning. The idea is a collective impact approach toward STEM education.”