STEM Learning Studios: Transform Schools from Teaching Organizations into Learning Organizations

STEM Learning Studios: Transform Schools from Teaching Organizations into Learning Organizations

United States
Organization type: 
nonprofit/ngo/citizen sector
$1 million - $5 million
Project Summary
Elevator Pitch

Concise Summary: Help us pitch this solution! Provide an explanation within 3-4 short sentences.

NCTAF STEM Learning Studios are cross-curricular, interdisciplinary teams of 4-6 teachers who collaboratively develop and implement hands-on projects. These teams of teachers in high-needs schools work with STEM professional volunteers from the community, who become part-time, long-term participants in schools. Built on 3 proven strategies (project-based learning; collaborative teaching; and well-structured participation by STEM professionals), Learning Studios emphasize the interconnectedness of STEM subjects and utilize practicing scientists and real-world resources. Projects have included a quest to quantify school energy use and building fuel cells with a NASA engineer. An independent evaluation has documented how Learning Studios improve student achievement and teaching effectiveness.

About Project

Problem: What problem is this project trying to address?

Learning Studios, which immerse all students in deeper learning, are an effective way to reengage young women and students of color who too often tune out of traditional STEM education and careers. STEM experts in our studios are often women and people of color who provide career role models for their students. Our region has dozens of minority schools and 3 minority school districts: DC, Prince George’s County, and Baltimore City Schools. It also has 1.5 million Baby Boomers working in, and retiring from, government agencies, aerospace corporations, museums, and healthcare organizations. This wealth of human capital stands ready to help low-income students who have had limited opportunities to pursue STEM careers, particularly in schools that are now suffering unprecedented resource reductions. We intend to mobilize them in a National Capitol Region Learning Studio Network. NASA, Northrop Grumman, and the Deerbrook Charitable Trust helped launch this effort, and STEM professionals are already working in 9 high school and 6 middle school studios in Maryland. Our region is not unique in this commitment. The New Hampshire Department of Education, together with 6 rural school districts and the state’s High Technology Council, is working with us to launch a New Hampshire STEM Learning Studio Network this fall. Rural students who have had limited access to STEM careers will be working side-by-side with experts drawn from their community’s manufacturing partners. Greenville, SC has invited us to establish STEM studios in partnership with Michelin, BMW, and GE.

Solution: What is the proposed solution? Please be specific!

Learning Studios change school culture. Instead of asking STEM experts to “fix” or supplement traditional teaching, studios are hybrid education spaces where teachers and STEM experts team up to reinvent teaching. Just as hybrid cars combine the best existing technology with cutting-edge innovations to create new vehicles, Learning Studios enable STEM experts, career educators, and short-term teachers to work in teams that combine their diverse strengths to overcome the limits of traditional teaching. STEM experts in part-time long-term roles coach teachers as they acquire new knowledge. Teachers mentor STEM experts as they develop new teaching skills. Together, they design and execute well-structured, hands-on inquiry projects with students. One of our 15 Maryland Learning Studio schools has embarked on a green technology learning challenge focused on understanding and managing the school’s energy use. A NASA Power Systems engineer and retired Northrop Grumman engineers are working with teachers and students to conduct a multiyear study that will quantify the school’s energy use and clarify energy system engineering principles. This team of experts, teachers, and students is investigating the design and cost effectiveness of solar panels, fuel cells, and wind energy systems. Studios in a 2nd school use Google maps and NASA remote sensing data to model strategies that could mitigate environmental pollution in Chesapeake Bay. Students learn STEM the way STEM is done: working in collaboration with their peers and accomplished professionals to tackle significant challenges.
Impact: How does it Work

Example: Walk us through a specific example(s) of how this solution makes a difference; include its primary activities.

Learning Studios use 6 design principles to create well-defined roles for STEM experts, teachers, and students, who work together in teams to pursue deeper learning that is supported by more effective teaching and higher impact STEM expert engagement. Studio teams composed of teachers and STEM professionals first design a “learning challenge,” which is a hands-on inquiry project focused on developing well-specified STEM competencies that students must master for college and career success. Second, they organize themselves into project teams that enable them to effectively combine their expertise and teaching skills to support students as they take on the learning challenge. Third, the teams (6 teachers plus 1 or 2 STEM professionals) work side-by-side with students to give them real-time feedback and guidance that helps them to overcome obstacles and develop new insights. Fourth, they participate in quarterly workshops to improve their performance by assessing the outcome of their just completed learning challenge and refining the design of the next learning challenge. Fifth, team members have the dedicated time, space, and resources (including opportunities for online participation) they need to build a collaborative studio culture in schools. Sixth, school leaders empower studio teams to make real-time decisions about how to improve learning using student feedback to refine projects while the inquiry challenge is underway—this leadership balances a professional environment of openness and trust with positive pressure to increase student achievement.
About You
National Commission on Teaching and America's Future
About You
First Name


Last Name


About Your Organization
Organization Name

National Commission on Teaching and America's Future

Organization Phone


Organization Address

1420 K Street NW, Suite 1000, Washington, DC 20005

Organization Country

, DC, Washington

Country where this project is creating social impact

, MD

How long has your organization been operating?

More than 5 years

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What stage is your project in?

Operating for 1‐5 years

Share the story of the founder and what inspired the founder to start this project

Tom Carroll is a cultural anthropologist, who began his community development career in the Peace Corps in Lesotho (1967-69). He is a proponent of Margaret Mead’s theory that cultures with a 3-generational learning tradition—which values the knowledge of elders, the know-how of parents, and the creativity of children—are more resilient when adapting to rapid environmental change. This is why Learning Studios are, at their heart, cross-generational learning communities, where every member (novice and experienced) yearns to know more, do more, and innovate more. We created Learning Studios to help educators adapt to a perfect storm that may overwhelm traditional school systems that are no longer fiscally viable or educationally sound. Studios will help them navigate the transition to an open learning ecosystem, in which schools are becoming hubs in a global learning network. Studios transform the teaching and learning culture, creating new roles for accomplished Boomers who want to pursue encore careers in education without becoming full-time teachers. Studios respond to Millennials in their twenties, who will pursue multiple careers, by giving them an opportunity to make significant contributions to student achievement as studio team members without committing 30 years to stand-alone teaching. Finally, and most importantly, studios respond to today’s youth, the most connected generation in history, who are creating a blend of face-to-face and digital learning networks, giving them access to expertise and learning resources extending far beyond traditional school boundaries.

Social Impact
Please describe how your project has been successful and how that success is measured

To create the schools we need to prepare future innovators, entrepreneurs, and leaders, we are using Learning Studios to design and build a bridge from classroom teaching to 21st century learning. Studios’ goals are deeper student learning supported by more effective teaching and higher impact STEM expert engagement. WestEd is our evaluation contractor. We assess deeper learning on 3 levels: STEM content mastery, use of STEM knowledge to understand problems, and creative use of STEM competencies to collaboratively develop solutions to complex challenges. Studios also are inquiry projects for teachers, whose learning challenge is to become effective STEM learning facilitators; their effectiveness is measured by their shift from stand-alone instruction to collaborative facilitation of STEM competency development. The learning challenge for STEM professionals is to discover how to translate their expertise into accessible learning experiences that improve teaching effectiveness and promote student mastery of STEM competencies. Indicators of effective STEM expert engagement in studios are active, sustained participation in the design, execution, and assessment of hands-on student inquiry projects. A 2009 NASA grant enabled us to launch Learning Studios in 4 high schools in 2 school districts. With a 2nd NASA grant and a Deerbrook Charitable Trust grant, we will open the next school year with 9 high schools and 6 middle schools across 4 districts, deploying 15 Learning Studios with 90 teachers and 21 STEM experts working with over 1,000 students.

How many people have been impacted by your project?


How many people could be impacted by your project in the next three years?


How will your project evolve over the next three years?

We will establish National Capitol Region Learning Studio Network schools in Maryland, Northern Virginia, and DC (including charter schools). Professionals from government agencies, corporate partners, museums, and healthcare will work in this network. An online platform will support collaboration among studios across the region that focus on the Smithsonian Institution’s 4 grand learning challenges. This fall we will launch a studio network in New Hampshire with 6 rural communities and the state’s High Technology Council. Greenville, SC is eager to deploy STEM experts from GE, Michelin, and BMW in 3 minority high school studios. Mind Trust is a Change Maker cosponsor, and we are interested in exploring the possibility of a STEM Leaning Studio deployment in Indianapolis.

What barriers might hinder the success of your project and how do you plan to overcome them?

Transforming a stand-and-deliver teaching culture rooted in 100 years of tradition is no easy task. NCTAF is generating buy-in from business, government, community, union, and school leaders eager to change this culture by using Learning Studios to enable STEM experts and teachers to develop new roles, rules, and tools for 21st century learning. Studio teams provide accomplished teachers with training and support to assume new roles as collaborative learning facilitators, and they coach novice teachers to develop and retain them as proficient learning team members. Studio teams are training and coaching previously marginalized STEM professionals to prepare them to assume greater responsibility for teaching effectiveness and student learning. Studio teams are particularly effective at reengaging students who have become passive learners; reigniting their curiosity and inquiry competencies by giving them an active voice in the design, execution, and assessment of their inquiry projects. Because current teacher preparation falls far short of what we need, we plan to convert selected sites into Educator Development Studios that will use a healthcare residency model to develop the diverse talents of learning facilitators. Studio teams also must create new roles for non-career teachers that will enable them to make higher impact contributions than they can make in short-term teaching assignments. At the other end of the career, we must revise antiquated retirement systems so that retired teachers can serve as learning coaches for novice teachers and STEM professionals.

Tell us about your partnerships

Our goal is to create a Capitol region “Megacommunity” of government, industry, and civic leaders who join forces with school leaders to reimagine education. School superintendents who seek alternatives to “plug-in” curriculum packages are adopting Learning Studios to enable their teachers to develop signature learning initiatives that are tailored to local community needs and leveraged with high impact, cost-effective use of local professional expertise. Studio teams of 6 teachers in 6 middle and 9 high schools in 4 districts are finishing their 2nd year of engaging STEM professionals who help them improve student mastery of STEM competencies. Howard County studios anchored their work in earth science studies with NASA scientists who are collaborating on cross-disciplinary, cross-grade level projects in plate tectonics, astronomy, soil and water quality, and climate change. Prince George’s County high school and middle school studios are using Google maps and NASA GIS remote sensing data to analyze historical patterns in urban land use development, including the environmental impact of these patterns. Chesapeake H.S. in Baltimore County together with the University of Maryland BioPark is gathering, graphing, and analyzing statistical patterns to monitor the problematic growth of the county deer population. Annapolis middle school studios are exploring marine engineering and architecture in partnership with the U.S. Naval Academy. We plan to replicate a Megacommunity in New Hampshire with the state education department, 6 rural school districts, and regional manufacturers.

Explain your selections

Maryland school districts have embraced Learning Studios as an innovative response to the state’s chronic STEM teacher shortage. As a Race to the Top winner, the state is making STEM Learning Studio investments in high priority schools and districts to improve teaching effectiveness. NASA has a deep commitment to translating its research into effective learning resources, and in 2009 awarded a 2-year grant of $894,000 to launch “NASA 21st Century Learning Teams.” These NASA teams augment the efforts of existing Maryland STEM teachers with Goddard Space Flight Center scientists and engineers that we deploy in Howard County and Prince George’s County middle and high school Learning Studios. In June 2011, NASA awarded a 2nd Learning Studios grant of $860,000 for “Global Climate Change Education” in schools serving low-income communities and students of color. The Deerbrook Charitable Trust is a regional foundation committed to engaging people over the age of 50 in service to youth. The National Capitol Region has 1.5 million Baby Boomers, half of whom will retire within 5 years. The Deerbrook grant will create encore career paths for retiring Boomers who will work in Anne Arundel County Learning Studios. Deerbrook funding also will support the growth of a National Capitol Learning Studio Network extending from Baltimore to Northern Virginia. Northrop Grumman, a national defense contractor committed to developing the next generation of engineers, has awarded a pilot grant of $17,500 to train its retired engineers for deployment in Maryland STEM Learning Studios.

How do you plan to strengthen your project in the next three years?

We will expand the number of studio teams in existing schools until each school reaches a tipping point and the school as whole becomes a Learning Studio (1 high school and 1 middle school are already there). We will continue to add schools in each participating district, which will enable us to triple the number of STEM professionals deployed in Learning Studios. Our 3-year Maryland expansion goal is 138 studio teams in 23 schools with 828 teachers and 272 STEM experts working with 13,200 students. We are entering into a contract with WestEd for a rigorous formative and summative evaluation of studio teaching effectiveness and student learning outcomes. Lessons learned from this evaluation will provide the basis for creating a National Capitol Region Learning Studio Network, which will include at least 10 school districts plus DC Public Charter Schools. edWeb will create an online Learning Studio platform to support this network. We will recruit federal agencies, corporations, and foundation leaders to deploy their professionals and make Learning Studio investments. The potential of Learning Studios is not limited to Washington DC. We will replicate a Learning Studio network in New Hampshire in partnership with 6 rural school districts and the state’s High Technology Council. We are seeking funding to launch Learning Studios in Greenville, SC, where Michelin, GE, and BMW have expressed an interest in 3 high schools. We note that Mind Trust is a Change Makers cosponsor; we would welcome an opportunity to deploy Learning Studios in Indianapolis.

Partnerships and Accountability
Please tell us more about how your partnership was formed and how it functions. What specific role does each partner play? What unique resources does each partner bring to the initiative?

The National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future (NCTAF) has a 17-year history of research and policy advocacy work focused on transforming schools into learning organizations to improve teaching quality. Building on this work, we have a strong track record for mobilizing state action alliances that establish Megacommunity coalitions among state government leaders, teacher educators, teacher associations, school boards, higher education, and business leaders who join forces to develop schools in which teachers and students thrive. We are building on our experience and those relationships to develop a Learning Studio network in Maryland and the National Capitol Region, which is our innovation development space. We also participate in the CCSSO Next Generation Learning initiative, which has supported our planning for the launch of a New Hampshire Learning Studio Network. We are finding a need to develop new partnerships outside of traditional school settings. There are many more professionals available to work in Learning Studios than we can productively employ in school-based initiatives, so we are exploring partnerships with afterschool and summer programs, as well as museums and libraries that support extended learning opportunities. We also are exploring the launch of Learning Studio networks that will deploy professionals in the creative and performing arts as well as the humanities and social sciences.

How are you building in accountability for students' successful STEM learning outcomes? Please provide a summary and examples.

STEM experts and teachers working in Learning Studios have well-defined roles and responsibilities for creating a new learning space that supports deeper learning, more effective teaching, and higher impact professional engagement. With NSF and Pearson Foundation grants, we published 2 research reports that define 6 principles of effective Learning Studios (Team Up for 21st Century Teaching and Learning: What Research and Practice Reveal about Professional Learning; and STEM Teachers in Professional Learning Communities: From Good Teachers to Great Teaching: These principles ensure that teachers and STEM experts are professionally responsibility for engaging students in learning challenges that develop competencies they need for college, careers, and life. Studio teams first design an inquiry project focused on well-specified student learning needs. After each project is completed, teams participate in a quarterly workshop during which they examine student learning outcomes on 3 levels: the extent to which students have mastered a key STEM competency; the ability of students to use that competency to understand a problem; and the ability of students to collaboratively use STEM competencies to develop a solution. The teams use their analysis of these outcomes to revise the inquiry project to make it more effective. They also identify competencies that should be the focus of the future inquiry projects. Studio teams receive professional coaching focused on goal-setting, project design, inquiry learning, and student feedback to improve their performance.


Investment, Human Resources/Talent, Marketing/Media, Research/Information, Innovation/Ideas, Mentorship.

Please use this space to elaborate on your selection above and/or to add needs that may not be listed.

We seek investments to scale up the National Capitol Region Learning Studio Network. We also seek funding to replicate Learning Studios in New Hampshire; Greenville, South Carolina; and possibly Indiana. We need PR support to tell our story effectively, particularly with video and web-based media. We seek alliances with professional associations, retiree organizations, and corporate partners that have access to a pool of professionals who are eager to participate in well-structured, sustained efforts to improve STEM education, without becoming full-time teachers. We are interested in joining with others to create a Megacommunity of STEM innovation thought leaders and program developers who are working to improve STEM education.


Human Resources/Talent, Research/Information, Collaboration/Networking, Pro-bono help (legal, financial, etc.), Innovation/Ideas, Mentorship.

Please use this space to elaborate on your selection above and/or to add offers that may not be listed.

We have deep research, practice, and policy development experience. We can provide our recently published reports and can broker access to a network of advocacy and action organizations to support a growing Megacommunity of thought leaders who are reimagining education. We are prepared to share Learning Studio strategies with others, and we are eager to learn from them to strengthen our effort. There is a need for a Megacommunity of thought leaders and program developers who are joining forces to reinvent education, and we would welcome the opportunity to contribute our experience and expertise to help create this community of practice.