July 27

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The Philadelphia Math + Science Coalition – creating a STEM Ecosystem in Philly

Greetings! It’s been 5 weeks now since I started my work at the Philadelphia Education Fund (Ed Fund), working with the Philly Math + Science Coalition arm. What a change, working for a non-profit in the same metro area where GSK is located! I don’t have interesting photos to share for this first blog, as many of the other PULSE volunteers working at more exotic locations have, but I hope you will find my experience interesting. Hopefully, some photos next time around.

I’ll start with my daily routine which is quite a departure from my days at Upper Merion West. Since the Ed Fund is located right on the Ben Franklin Parkway and 18th Street – just a few blocks from Love Park and City Hall – I take the train into the city rather than drive. I pick up SEPTA’s Great Valley Express at 6:59 each morning and am whisked to Suburban Station in under an hour. The Ed Fund is not even a 10 min walk away, but the Basilica of St.s Peter and Paul is also just on the other side of the street, so I am able to take 5 minutes each day to go in and pray before going to work – something I haven’t been able to do since I moved to Philly 11 years ago now. I am also able to get noon-time mass in a couple of times a week – what a blessing! Even stopping into the Basilica I am almost always the first one at work with most of the crew coming in between 8:30 and 9:00 a.m.

The Ed Fund is located on the 7th floor of the 8 story United Way building (recently, I’ve been taking the stairs up; something I am desperate to do since I can no longer use my favorite GSK amenity: the gym at UM West!). Having been a part of Project Places as recently as February of this year, it is a bit of a shock to be working in what can only be described as the anti-Places environment: a tired and decrepit cube farm that is anything but energizing and vibrant, and supports silo-ing. But! Happily there are some very talented and committed folks at the Ed Fund who are passionate about education generally and teachers and students particularly, and their passion is infectious. As you might imagine, I’m learning an entirely new “corporate” language around education and after 5 weeks I already find myself comfortably tossing around words like CAP (college access plan), SLO (student learning outcomes), scope and sequence, TLI (teacher-led initiatives), PD (professional development), NGSS (Next Generation Science Standards, established by the National Academies), etc. I’ve learned about a number of programs, including STEMCityPhl (Philly’s implementation of the White House’s “US 2020” program).

A few facts to set the background: The Philly region has a great deal going for it regarding STEM. We are 8th nationally in terms of STEM employment, with 530,000 STEM jobs, and with over 100 colleges and universities. And in additional to GSK, there are other strong corporate partners, (including IBM, Dow Chemical and Microsoft) and universities (notably Drexel and Temple) who support the Ed Fund and STEMCityPhl. However, missing from this picture are students educated in the Philadelphia Public School system. The current STEM performance of School District of Philadelphia (District) students can only be described as abysmal, and they graduate from the schools completely unprepared to enter the kind of technically demanding jobs of the many STEM employers. And with the switch from the PSSAs to the more rigorous Keystone exams last year, even lower levels of performance in math and science are the new baseline (see article).

Is there an upside to all of this? Mayor Nutter has shown a strong commitment to improving STEM education in Philly, and indications are that Mayor-elect Kinney will continue to support initiatives like STEMCityPhl. As mentioned above, a number of corporate and university partners are already actively supporting STEM programs in the city, many through the Math + Science Coalition that I support. The District is also making a concerted push to re-introduce science into the elementary grades with a new STEM scope and sequence. A couple of very talented young science teachers have been hired as curriculum specialists to drive this effort, and the Math + Science Coalition’s own Don McKinney has been consulting with the district on the new science scope and sequence.

And, with the possibility of obtaining a STEM Ecosystems grant – which the city is now applying for – there is a great opportunity on the horizon for pulling these many partners together in an even more effective network. Stay tuned for more details on that, and on my own work at the Ed Fund in my next blog.

Thanks for reading!  Onward, to the Dog Days of August!

Steve