The WISE Consortium

A Bold Strategy

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To help achieve this vision, we took a bold step. We forged a new partnership: the Washington Informal Science Education (WISE) Consortium, which is comprised of the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture at the University of Washington, IslandWood, The Museum of Flight, Pacific Science Center, Seattle Aquarium, and Woodland Park Zoo.

The WISE Consortium’s Pre-K-12 STEM Project-Based Learning Initiative is an innovative solution to a national problem that manifests itself in Washington State. American youth, especially those representing underserved communities, lack the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) skills to think critically, understand complex societal issues, pursue general careers, pursue STEM careers, and fill the pipeline of STEM jobs. This is a recipe for economic and societal failure.

The Washington Informal Science Education (WISE) Consortium addresses this problem by leveraging our extensive STEM assets to create a comprehensive, coherent, and integrated program of inquiry-based learning experiences for underserved students that take place both in and out of schools. Our approach is based on research affirming the importance of informal learning, project-based learning, and exposure to real world and personal experiences.

In fall of 2014, the WISE Consortium will launch a pre-K-12 project-based learning initiative, beginning with a pilot. Entire schools will be transformed as students become actively engaged and apply what they learn to action or research projects aimed at improving their communities. Projects will be augmented by real world, personal experiences thro ugh engagement with Consortium member sites and industrial settings, exposure to professionals and role models, extensions into after school programs, and digital resources for remote learning and participation. Below is an outline with information about these topics that follows about the initiative.

  • Washington State’s Need for Transforming Pre-K-12 STEM Education

  • Strategies for Advancing STEM Learning

  • Why Project-based Learning?

  • The Context for Our Initiative

  • Our Challenges and Opportunities

  • Our Customers

  • Theory of Action

  • Goals for Pre-K-12 STEM Project-Based Learning Initiative

  • Logic Model


Washington State’s Need for Transforming Pre-K-12 STEM Education

The quality of life for all youth and citizens in Washington State is directly related to the quality of education, especially science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). During the 20th century, our education system and our scientific enterprise played a critical role in advancing our state’s impressive economic growth and prosperity. For the next decade, it is imperative that we continue to compete globally, sustain a healthy and biodiverse environment, and maintain our democracy for everyone in the state.

Today Washington State has a critical need for citizens who are scientifically and technologically literate, can contribute to our economy, and improve the quality of life and the communities in which they live. We also have a demand for STEM talent that has stayed constant even through the recent economic downturn. However, while we have many excellent schools in our state, overall we have a pre-K-12 education system that is faced with significant challenges for improving programs to achieve these crucial needs. Dramatic and growing economic inequalities, shifting demographics, and the length of time it takes to develop talent, coupled with fierce competition from other states and countries, are among the systemic factors that need to be addressed to inspire and develop informed citizens and a talent pipeline. These conditions have created a significant mismatch between our state’s increasing demand for STEM-related employment opportunities and our supply of qualified STEM-literate individuals who can step into any career, including STEM technical and professional jobs. By 2017, local companies are predicted to experience 50,000 vacancies due to lack of local qualified STEM candidates. If this is realized, we will not only lose $800M of tax revenue annually but also the opportunity for STEM employees who represent underserved communities to break the vicious cycle of poverty and all that comes with these circumstances.

This situation presents us with an important choice: We can develop local talent or we can continue to import talent from outside our state borders. By creating a robust and sustainable pipeline of STEM knowledge and expertise, we can create STEM-literate citizens, increase innovation, break the cycle of poverty for underserved students and their families, and provide them with the opportunity to participate in our economy. Combined these can improve the overall quality of life in Washington State today as well as for future generations.

In the past, we depended upon a small fraction of our student population to be STEM literate and excel in STEM which was sufficient in meeting our needs. Our success in accomplishing our needs today will be measured by the ways STEM learning experiences not only advance knowledge and skills but also are inspirational and foster creativity for all pre-K-12 youth.


Strategies for Advancing STEM Learning

In order to address the challenges of the new STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education landscape, we need a sustained investment of time and resources to develop a new model of learning – one that integrates effective STEM informal learning experiences with formal learning programs.

Critical to achieving this vision will be coherent programs designed to:

  1. Motivate and inspire our youth to value and appreciate learning and the importance of STEM to the quality of their lives and their communities.

  2. Develop individuals who can make informed and rational decisions about their health, careers, the environment, finances, and government.

  3. Advance our understanding of ourselves, our planet, and the universe.

  4. Contribute to the development of a 21st century workforce at all levels that can compete in a highly competitive global marketplace.

  5. Increase the pool of innovators, especially those who are underrepresented, who will create the new ideas, new products, and entirely new industries of the 21st century.

  6. Advance the scientific literacy of the public.

Source: The President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology Executive Report, 2009

Why Project-based Learning

The WISE Consortium has decided to use project-based learning (PBL) as the primary strategy for creating a new model of learning for bridging informal learning resources and experiences with formal learning. This strategy provides us with the opportunity to build upon and add new research to the growing body of literature about the value of this approach. Effective PBL engages students in creating, questioning, and revising knowledge, while developing their skills in critical thinking, collaboration, communication, reasoning, synthesis, and resilience (Barron & Darling-Hammond, 2008).


Research on Learning Outcomes

In the past decade, the National Research Council has published major reports summarizing evidence from research studies that students learn best by experiencing and solving real-world problems. One of the most effective approaches to achieve this goal is PBL. Studies comparing learning outcomes for students taught via project-based learning versus traditional instruction show that when implemented well, PBL increases long-term retention of content, helps students perform as well as or better than traditional learners in high-stakes tests, improves problem-solving and collaboration skills, and improves students’ attitudes towards learning (Strobel & van Barneveld, 2009 (14); Walker & Leary, 2009 (15)). PBL can also provide an effective model for whole-school reform (National Clearinghouse for Comprehensive School Reform, 2004 (16); Newmann & Wehlage, 1995 (17)).

It is important to recognize that PBL has been criticized for not being rigorous. Researchers have identified several components that are critical to effective PBL (Barron & Darling-Hammond, 2008; Ertmer & Simons, 2005 (18); Mergendoller & Thomas, 2005 (19); Hung, 2008 (20)). The following components need to be incorporated into the design of learning experiences to obtain significant learning results.

  1. A realistic, real-world problem or project

    1. aligns with students’ skills and interests
    2. requires learning clearly defined content and skills (e.g. using rubrics, or exemplars from local professionals and students)
    3. increased student control over his or her learning
    4. teachers serving as coaches and facilitators of inquiry and reflection
  2. Structured group work

    1. groups of three to four students, with diverse skill levels and interdependent roles
    2. team rewards
    3. individual accountability, based on student growth
  3. Multi-faceted assessment

    1. multiple opportunities for students to receive feedback and revise their work
    2. multiple learning outcomes (e.g., problem-solving, content, collaboration)
    3. presentations that encourage participation and signal social value (e.g. exhibitions, portfolios, performances, reports)
  4. Participation in a professional learning network

    1. collaborating and reflecting upon PBL experiences in the classroom with colleagues

    2. courses in inquiry-based teaching methods.


The Context for Our Initiative

Washington State

Washington State has a population of 6.9 million people (2012 estimate). A language other than English is spoken at home 18% of the time with 13% of this population living below the poverty level.

Washington State has 2,354 elementary and secondary schools organized into 295 local districts and nine intermediate districts. Together they serve nearly 1.1 million students and 54,000 teachers. At the postsecondary level, there are 85 institutions (total Title IV degree-granting).

Transforming education in the state, especially STEM education, has become a priority. On January 5, 2012, the State Supreme Court ruled in McCleary v. Washington that Washington state is not providing adequate funding for basic education under the state Constitution. The State must amply provide for the education of all Washington children as the State’s first and highest priority before any other State programs or operations. Education means “the basic knowledge and skills needed to compete in today’s economy and meaningfully participate in this state’s democracy.”

STEM Literacy and Washington State’s Workforce

Many of tomorrow’s most interesting and well-paying jobs are likely–if not more likely–to require STEM literacy. Workers are STEM literate and who also have STEM degrees command higher wages, earning 26% more than their non-STEM counterparts. In general, STEM-degree holders enjoy these higher earnings, regardless of whether they work in a STEM-based field.

Information technology, renewable energy, and global health are three of the top drivers of Washington State’s economy. Nationwide, Washington State ranks number one in the concentration of STEM jobs. The four-county Puget Sound region is home to a mix of mature and emerging industry clusters which are explicitly STEM-based, including aerospace and advanced manufacturing, clean technology and emerging technology, information technology, and life sciences and global health.

STEM occupations are amongst the fastest-growing, best-paid in King County. In 2011, seven STEM-related industry clusters employed over 350,000 residents in over 11,000 establishments. According to the Prosperity Partnership, in the next decade business/financial sales, health care, and computer sciences are expected to add between 18,000 and 23,000 jobs each in the Puget Sound region. By 2018, we will see a 24% increase in STEM jobs, seven points above the national average. Currently there are 23,000 unfilled STEM jobs in Washington State as a result of the job skills gap. The gap is projected to continue to grow to 45,000 jobs in three years – 2017 (Source: Washington STEM, 2014).


Our Challenges and Opportunities

Outlined below is a summary of our challenges as well as the opportunities we can leverage with this new initiative. We have developed strategies to address these potential barriers to our success that include ways to continuously monitor them as well as determine if there are others that will need our focus and resources.


Students. They lack access to a comprehensive, coherent, and integrated program of inquiry-based science, technology; engineering and mathematics (STEM) learning experiences both in and out of schools. They also lack exposure to STEM role models. For many, this is reflected in negative attitudes, poor academic performance, and a lack of STEM literacy. Without this foundation, it is challenging to achieve their professional and personal dreams.

Families. Families, especially those in underserved communities, are challenged by work schedules, finances, English language proficiency, transportation, competing priorities, lack of time, and lack of basic exposure to STEM-related experiences and professional learning opportunities.

Teachers. They are overtaxed with the demands of large class sizes and meeting standards and assessments. Most have not received professional development in project-based learning and are more familiar with traditional pedagogical approaches. There is also high turnover in underserved communities.

Administrators. These education leaders have to navigate a fragmented, frequently changing educational system. They contend with shrinking budgets, changing program priorities, and lack funding for transportation for field trips.

STEM Nonprofit Organizations. They represent a crowded field of dedicated organizations working to solve the challenges of transforming STEM education. However, collectively their approach is fragmented.

STEM Experts and the Business Sector. They want to participate and contribute. However, there is no formal system for their involvement.


New STEM Learning Model and Standards Implementation. We can demonstrate how six leading informal science education institutions with a shared vision and collective resources can work together strategically with schools and other partners to transform STEM education programs. In doing so, we can create a new STEM learning model that (1) aligns with the Next Generations Science Standards and the Common Core Standards; (2) improves teacher quality; and (3) inspires and advances STEM learning for underserved youth through access to real-world experiences and experts.

Partnerships. We can use best practices to strategically focus and coordinate STEM resources to achieve our goals by collaborating with organizations such as KCTS, Washington STEM, MESA, the Washington State Academy of Sciences as well as other organizations working to advance STEM learning.

Momentum. The time to address STEM education reform is excellent. Leaders in education, government and business sectors collectively have reached consensus that pre-K -12 STEM education reform is a priority. Today we have new federal and state policies and standards, the WA STEM Framework for Action and Accountability has been developed and validated, and the number of organizations interested in working together to address our critical STEM issues is growing.


Our Customers

We will focus our programmatic efforts on pre-K-12 students representing populations that are historically underrepresented and underserved. This includes Alaska Natives, Native Americans, Blacks or African Americans, Latinos, Hispanics, and Pacific Islanders as well as students with disabilities.

We plan to initially target South King County, specifically a subset of an area referred to as “The Roadmap Region.” The Road Map Project (RMP) is a group of unique districts aimed at improving student achievement. It was awarded a $40 million grant from the U.S Department of Education’s “Race to the Top” competition. This area includes seven school districts, comprising more than 10% of Washington State public schools and nearly half the students in King County. The Roadmap Region serves over 261 schools, and 150,000 students. Of those 150,000 students, 36,000 are considered high-need students. Unique characteristics of this population are:

  • 58% low-income

  • 66% students of color

  • 16% English Language Learners, representing more than 160 primary languages

  • Only 20% complete a college degree or even a one-year postsecondary credential program

  • Fewer than 5% of the STEM postsecondary degrees awarded in Washington are earned by students of color

Federal Way and Highline Districts have indicated preliminary interest in participating, and individual WISE Consortium members already have established partnerships with some schools in these districts. Other districts in the Road Map Region include Auburn, Kent, Renton, Seattle, and Tukwila.

Our plan is to select feeder schools in which students advance sequentially from elementary to middle to high school. By providing a coherent and continuous experience of project-based learning, we will increase the potential of changing the culture of STEM learning with schools, their staffs, and communities.

As we work with these students and their teachers, it will be critical that we apply a race and equity lens to our policies, practices and strategies. By providing exposure to STEM and laying a STEM foundation for this population, the potential gains are vast. We can broaden their opportunities, strengthen their ability to earn a living wage and place them on their desired career path. This, in turn, will strengthen our state economically and improve our quality of life and communities.


Our Theory of Action


Our Goals


Our Logic Model

We have developed a logic model to help guide, continuously improve, and monitor our progress in achieving our goals. The attached PDF presents our current thinking as of May 2014.


WISE Consortium Pre-K-12 STEM Project-Based Learning Logic Model –PDF