Ecosystems Have Histories

We recently had a visit from Emily Dilger, who is the lead of the Bay Area STEM Ecosystem project. Learning ecosystems are a way of thinking about the various experiences, environments, learners, and tools that exist across settings and contexts. As we gathered on several occasions to have conversations about the power of partnerships and networks within STEM education, early childhood math and science, and informal learning, I was reminded of the power of the ecosystem approach.


I wholeheartedly believe in the power of networks and increasing participation among many different kinds of participants – especially those who have historically been unrepresented. It is precisely the power within these systems, however, that when used to exclude or privilege, undermines efforts toward diverse and equitable connectivity. Research scientist Bronwyn Bevan from the University of Washington recently wrote a piece on ecological perspectives and learning ecosystems in STEM education and shared this insight:

“A focus on networks of places and people alone represents important partnership approaches, but they can be implemented in ahistorical ways that can perpetuate existing patterns of participation.”

Specifically, Bevan asserts that social histories – including patterns of exclusion, privilege, and marginalization – are not often considered in ecosystem approaches. When this happens, ecosystems are designed and adapted around the dominant, existing values and ways of being. Those who resonate with these modes of knowing and being thrive, while diverse perspectives and experiences eventually fade. Learning ecosystems face the challenge of developing culturally responsive ways to increase participation in shared activities. But increasing participation isn’t just accomplished through opening more of the same doors. As Bevan describes,

“Opening doors to pursue your interests and commitments requires more than just the doors being available. You must know where they are. You must be convinced that what is on the other side is something you want. You must be welcomed when you walk through the door. Families and learners who have been historically excluded from STEM fields, or immigrant families who may not yet know where the doors are in a new environment, or families who receive strong cultural messages that STEM is not achievable for their children, contend with more obstacles to brokering STEM learning opportunities for their children.”

What can be done to change the nature of participation – who participates, in what ways, and toward what ends? In her essay, Bevan provides four considerations that can help those involved in learning ecosystems confront existing norms and rethink dominant practices. I’ll share these considerations in my next blog.

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