Accelerating equity in STEM education in the Puget Sound

At the Institute for Systems Biology (ISB), headquartered in Seattle’s South Lake Union Innovation Hub, we believe every student deserves a high-quality STEM education, regardless of gender, race or income. One key way our STEM education team brings that belief to life is through our active partnership with Washington State Leadership Assistance for Science Education Reform (LASER), a science education program led by Washington STEM, the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, Educational Service Districts and ISB.

We know access to a great STEM education is inequitable along the lines of gender, ethnicity and income. To ensure that all students have access to a high-quality STEM education, we have to work at the systems level. This is exactly what LASER does.

What makes the work of LASER so powerful is it constitutes a systems approach to leadership assistance and professional development. In our community, LASER brings together teacher-leaders and administrators from over 30 school districts in the Puget Sound region. LASER helps provide a shared vision that places equity front and center in STEM education, while fostering a culture of collaboration across and within districts. LASER is also developing an online toolkit of STEM teaching resources that educators, regardless of their geography, can access to help create meaningful STEM experiences for students. This includes resources to guide strategic planning, equity focused professional development for teachers, and more.

Another benefit of LASER’s systems approach is that it offers a state-wide presence in every region of Washington. This network of LASER Alliances provides education leaders with the means to work across district and regional lines to learn from one another in a variety of contexts. These large, virtual learning communities help develop cultural proficiency in service of district programs and classroom learning, which in turn prepare students for civic engagement, family-wage careers, education beyond high school, and lifelong learning.

ISB and LASER have been partnering with the Renton School District for more than 10 years to make sure that teachers, science leaders, and administrators have access to the resources and knowledge they need to provide a 21st century STEM education for their students. The Renton School District’s student population is comprised of 47 percent students of color, 45 percent students from low-income backgrounds, and almost half of the students are female. LASER’s work with the Renton School District is critical in making sure all students, especially those furthest from opportunity, can thrive.

At the Renton School District, we know that a high-quality STEM education is critical for students to access some of the most in-demand, family-wage jobs in our region. But the truth is we can’t do that work alone. LASER has helped provide a shared vision of STEM in the Puget Sound area for well over a decade. By having an overarching vision for high-quality, equitable STEM education in our community, we’re able to plan, grow, and drive toward outcomes that center our students, year over year.

Our work with LASER has resulted in new and improved practices that ensure we’re setting up our students for success. Whether that’s creating new, more clear pathways for STEM courses, new instructional strategies, or refreshing strategic plans. LASER helps provide that joint mission that we can all agree on and work toward in concert. The professional development that LASER provides for our science leaders is equally indispensable.

As we bring on new STEM teacher-leaders and administrators, we encourage them to get involved with LASER as a way to get grounded in their roles and learn to navigate the complexities of Washington education systems. This work is critical for new educators. It allows them to hit the ground running and create the strategies needed to support teachers and students in STEM learning.

Because of LASER, teachers across our region are working together rather than in isolation, principals and administrators are learning from one another and working to shift STEM learning district-wide, district leaders are tapping into research to improve classroom learning, and our district is partnering with other organizations such as Washington STEM and the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction to move the needle forward for Renton students.

Washington State LASER is working with the state legislature this session to request an increase in funding in order to expand programs and double the number of school districts and students served by LASER. We believe the state’s continued investment will ensure that school districts across the state of Washington receive help with strategic planning and science leadership development that the Renton School District has been so fortunate to receive.

Dr. Damien Pattenaude is the Superintendent of the Renton School District. Dr. James Heath is the President of the Institute for Systems Biology.