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The Expert Adviser


The history of 21PSTEM shares many of the same surprising twists and turns, non-linear events, and circuitous routes that marks the peculiar nature of any good story.

We begin in 2006, mid-way through a five-year $12.5 million National Science Foundation grant awarded to La Salle University, the largest in its history, to establish the Math, Science Partnership of Greater Philadelphia (MSPGP.) This was an unprecedented partnership of 45 Philadelphia area school districts and 13 colleges and universities. The MSPGP had three ambitious goals: improve students’ achievement in math and science; increase the quantity and quality of STEM teachers; and research how to do the first two. In engineering terms, the MSPGP was a design research experiment. Like anyone conducting an experiment, we had some idea of what we were doing, but the whole purpose of an experiment is to learn from it. We conceived plans, implemented them, learned from them, and then went back to the drawing board to start a new cycle.

The MSPGP leadership team consisted of five people: three from the college level – a mathematician, a geologist and a science educator – together with a cognitive psychologist and a school district superintendent. More than 100 college faculty were involved, and several thousands of teachers, and tens of thousands of students.   We were learning a great deal about how to enhance student engagement and learning. As a design experiment, new ideas and promising avenues for innovation had emerged. But the grant and funding was scheduled to end in two years. What then? The MSPGP leadership team decided to form a non-profit research and action organization to continue and expand upon the MSPGP, if we could obtain new funding.

The Launch​

In September, 2007, the MSPGP leadership team incorporated The 21st Century Partnership for STEM Education. 21PSTEM was intended to be an agile, neutral broker or “connector” to bring institutions and human resources together to form robust partnerships to undertake projects no one institution could easily do on their own. Now as 21PSTEM, we assembled a partnership with the University of Pennsylvania, Temple University, the University of Pittsburgh and Research for Better Schools to write a six-year, $10 million proposal to The U.S Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences to establish The 21st Century Center for Research and Development in Cognition and Science Instruction, (Cog Sci Center).

In June 2008, to our surprise, we were awarded the grant and 21PSTEM was launched. This was our Big Bang moment. The Cog Sci Center was a large and audacious undertaking. The goal was to have a team of scientists apply cognitive science principles to modify three science units from two different science curriculum programs in 60 middle schools, provide professional development to teachers from 120 middle schools and then compare the results of these interventions to student outcomes in 60 business-as-usual middle schools. Using a randomized control trial design (RCT), 180 schools, 740 teachers and thousands of students were involved across five districts in Arizona and two in Pennsylvania. In total, 90,000 tests in 36 versions were administered.

Additional 21PSTEM Projects

Master Teachers 

Then, in October 2009, 21PSTEM, in partnership with La Salle University, we received $1.3 million in three supplements to the original MSPGP project. Two Noyce supplements funded two years of substantial and sustained professional development to 36 math and science teachers from six high schools in the Greater Philadelphia region to create a cadre of Master Teachers who would become change agents in their schools. The third supplement was to write and synthesize MSPGP research findings.


In March 2010, 21PSTEM, in partnership with Villanova University, was awarded a $2.44 million NSF grant to conduct a randomized control trial and qualitative investigation into the merits of proficiency based-assessment in 9th grade mathematics classrooms of 44 high schools. This project, known as “PARLO” for Proficiency–based Assessment and Reassessment of Learning Outcomes, is a direct line of research on formative assessment which began during the MSPGP when we worked in partnership with Dylan Wiliam and ETS.

STEM Asset Mapping 

In large metropolitan regions, the number of institutions, actors and activities associated with science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) can be vast. The complexity of the actual and potential linkages between these STEM related education, research and business assets is staggering. In August 2010, a partnership of 21PSTEM, DVIRC, The Ohio State University’s Battelle Center for Mathematics, and Ben Franklin Technology Partnership was awarded a $300,000 NSF EAGER grant to explore how advanced data visualization software could spur innovation by dynamically identifying and connecting regional STEM assets.

I-CUBED Research 

In October 2010, building again on previous work conducted by the MSPGP with our Philadelphia area higher education institutions, a partnership of Westat, Netform and 21PSTEM was awarded a five year $1.2 million NSF grant to research NSF’s Innovation through Institutional Integration program (I-Cubed) at six diverse higher education institutions across the country. The research project makes extensive use of social network analysis (SNA), document review, and multiple on site interviews. A nuanced logic model of institutional change has emerged from this study.

Egypt STEM Schools 

In August 2011, we received unexpected visitors who would change the direction of 21PSTEM. USAID sponsored a delegation led by the Minister of Education of Egypt to the U.S. to learn more about STEM schools. The Arab Spring had sparked revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt eight months prior affording an opening for the Egyptians to break free from the rigid curriculum and rote learning teaching practices that suppressed the creativity of their youth. STEM schools were seen as a way to start a new model of education. The Egyptians spent six hours with the 21PSTEM staff and our invited university and other partners. The Minister had pledged to open up the first STEM school in September, but had no curriculum nor were the teachers prepared to teach any differently. Impressed with what he had heard at 21PSTEM, as the Minister and his delegation left our offices he whispered, “I’ll see you in Cairo.”

In January 2012, four months later, Joe Merlino, President of 21PSTEM; Frederic Bertley, VP of the Franklin Institute; and Jan Morrison, President of TIES found themselves in Cairo on a short term USAID consulting contract. By August, the three organizations were the U.S STEM team on a four-year, $25 million USAID grant awarded to World Learning to design 3-5 new Model STEM schools for Egypt. 21PSTEM was tasked with designing an integrated, project-based curriculum and a new assessment system from scratch. The project known as ECASE, Education Consortium for Advancing STEM in Egypt, has been transformative for Egypt with many of the STEM students winning prestigious international awards. It has also been transformative for the staff of 21PSTEM, particularly for those who have travelled or been stationed there in Egypt.



Meanwhile, one of the findings from our Cog Sci Center was the incredible degree of teacher positional change that occurred from one year to the next which made it difficult to implement the cognitive science interventions with fidelity, let alone sustain them. In order to explore the degree of teacher turnover and assignment instability in schools and district further, 21PSTEM again partnered with the University of Pennsylvania to secure a 3 year NSF grant in September, 2013. This research project, entitled, Instability in Education Systems, Randomized Controlled Trials, and Children’s Achievement, or “PRIME API”, is examining hundreds of thousands of teachers’ staffing records over a 5 to 10 year period from a dozen states. Based on preliminary findings from this research, we believe approaches to school reform will have to be fundamentally reconceived.

Future history of 21PSTEM to be written. Keep up with our progress here, and check out our latest creations here.

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