Partnering with Universities on STEAM Programs: How Schools Are Doing It (And Why)

University partnerships offer benefits for K–12, especially for STEM and STEAM programs — and not just in the ways you might expect. From expertise and mentoring to hands-on experiences and career exposure, the positive results of working with higher ed faculty impact students and K–12 educators alike.

Partnerships are a key component of successful STEM and STEAM programs for K-12 schools. According to Next Generation Learning for All: A report from the NSF-supported forum, published by the Education Development Center (EDC) and SRI International: "Partners external to schools and STEM programs in other educational settings provide students and teachers with critically important STEM learning experiences, knowledge, and mentoring."

Some schools have collaborated with universities to bring undergraduate students, graduate students and professors into K-12 classrooms to work with students and teachers on STEAM programs. Other schools are sending students and teachers to universities for enrichment or professional development.

Expertise and experience

The Scientist in the Classroom Partnership Program is a collaboration between several colleges and universities in the area of Nashville, TN and Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools. Through this partnership, Rose Park Magnet Math and Science Middle School has a scientist from Vanderbilt University on site to work with the school's science teachers.

Over time, the partnership between Rose Park Magnet and Vanderbilt has evolved to the point that the scientist is at the school full-time, working with teachers and students throughout the building. According to Robert Blankenship, principal of Rose Park Magnet Middle, one of the biggest advantages of the program is "the expertise and the experience that the professors and the scientists bring that probably are not readily available to our science teachers."

Among other things, the Vanderbilt scientist helps coach the school's VEX Robotics team. The school also partners with Fisk University to bring in experts to work with the school's faculty and staff, as well as hosting another after-school club focusing on robotics.


Another major benefit of these partnerships is professional collaboration. According to Blankenship, "the beauty of it is that we get to bounce things off of each other and say, 'Well, this might work; we never thought of it that way."

Often this professional collaboration involves university scientists working with science teachers to develop curriculum for use in the classroom. Four science teachers from Rose Park Magnet Math and Science Middle School worked with scientists from Vanderbilt University over the summer. "They spent two solid weeks together, and more," Blankenship said. "Two right here on campus and then over at Vanderbilt's campus developing their curriculum specific to their grade level."

The University of Arkansas - Fort Smith (UAFS) offers a program called Adopt-a-Professor, which also partners university professors with local K-12 teachers. The partnerships span one semester, with teachers and professors collaborating on lesson plans. "The professors meet with the teachers at UASF, and the teachers let them know what standards they're working on, and they collaborate on those lessons with the professors," said Tura Bailey, principal at Hackett Elementary School. The professors then come in three times over the course of the semester to teach those co-developed lessons to children in the classroom.

Hackett School District has participated in the program almost every semester since the program launched in early 2015. Bailey said the relationships the teachers develop with the professors sometimes continue after the semester is over. "There's one professor — she worked in one of our 6th and 7th grade math class last semester — and even though we're not partnered with her this semester, she's still coming by. So they do keep up those collaborations and those friendships with the professors, even when their time in the program is over."

Professional development opportunities for teachers

The Center for K12 STEM Education at the NYU Tandon School of Engineering offers several professional development programs for local teachers. The programs are funded by the National Science Foundation and bring in cohorts of teachers from middle and high schools in New York for training on teaching topics such as information security, robotics and mechatronics. "We have one currently called DRK12 training teachers to use these robotics, but the purpose of the robotics is to teach math and science in their math and science classes," said Ben Esner, director of the Center for K12 STEM Education. "However, out of that project will come all kinds of curriculum, all kinds of lessons and activities."

Nord Anglia Education — an organization that operates 43 schools around the world — has partnered with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Through this partnership, teachers at one of Nord Anglia's schools — the British International School of Chicago, Lincoln Park — have the opportunity to attend a week-long professional development program each summer.

The school tries to send as many teachers as possible "to really spread the benefit of it across all of our staff," said Tom Collins, head of STEAM at Nord Anglia's British International School of Chicago, Lincoln Park in Chicago. Each school also has a lead teacher involved with the MIT collaboration, and that teacher provides in-service training for the rest of the staff "to keep them up to date on what's going on and plan and prepare for the challenges."

Extra motivation for students

For its part in the collaboration, MIT has created STEAM challenges for students at some of Nord Anglia's schools. The students work on the challenges in mixed-grade teams from kindergarten through grade 5, with the fifth graders taking on leadership roles. At the British International School of Chicago, Lincoln Park, the MIT-created STEAM challenges have "invigorated" students, according to Collins. As part of the collaboration with MIT, students have the opportunity to travel to Massachusetts and learn directly from MIT students and professors, and Collins said the trip is like "a carrot on a stick" for the kids.

The collaboration between Rose Park Magnet Math and Science Middle School and Vanderbilt University also serves to motivate students. High achieving students in grades 7 and 8 can opt in to the Day of Discovery program. Students in the DoD program spend one day each week on campus at Vanderbilt, working with university scientists to complete labs and other activities. "Not everybody can miss a whole day of school every week and still be caught up, so it's been a little challenge," Blankenship said.

The Center for K12 STEM Education at the NYU Tandon School of Engineering offers summer programs for middle and high school students. Students have to apply to the program, and, if they're accepted, they can spend four to seven weeks on the university campus. According to Esner, the kids work with NYU students on "very hands-on, very real-world applications of engineering, science and technology."

Exposure to college and future careers

Hackett School District is in a rural area, and, according to Bailey, the students sometimes feel like university is not available to them. The Adopt-a-Professor program has made university feel more accessible, particularly when students get the opportunity to visit the campus itself. "It makes them realize that college is available, close to home," Bailey said. "They don't have to go off somewhere far away and be away from family to be able to get a college education."

The program can even make STEM careers seem more accessible. "Last semester we had the professor that came from the STEM center,... so when he brought the 3D printer, that just really drove it home to them how important technology is going to be and the kind of jobs that they're going to be required to have someday," Bailey said.

These are only a few examples of the many STEM and STEAM partnership opportunities available with universities. Teachers and administrators can reach out to local universities to see if programs are available, or initiate new partnerships themselves.