Students at Jones Middle School participate in STEMformation activities.
Students at Jones Middle School participate in STEM activities. Credit: Bekah McNeel / San Antonio Report

Since the early 2000s, a movement called STEM education has been sweeping the nation, and educators around the world have witnessed its positive impact. That impact happens when students experience science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) while working on relevant, real-world problems.

Now an updated approach is making an impact, an approach where STEM curricula are integrated with art and design. This updated approach is called STEAM (STEM+Arts). Emerging research indicates that STEAM is even more appealing to students. The STEAM approach increases students’ social and cognitive growth and leads to even stronger creativity and innovation skills.

Ultimately, these benefits relate directly to quality of education, career preparation, and readiness for 21st-century jobs. STEM and STEAM approaches also help reach minorities, females, and other populations not fully participating in the 21st-century workforce.

These are issues we deeply care about in our city. How are we doing at bringing STEM and STEAM’s benefits to San Antonio? The short answer is that we’ve had many successful STEM and STEAM programs in San Antonio, and now we’ve taken a step to align our efforts for greater collective impact.

The City of San Antonio, in partnership with Bexar County, was just selected as one of 12 new international communities of practice as designated by the International STEM Learning Ecosystem Initiative, which aims to bridge STEM/STEAM learning across sectors by linking business, higher education, and informal learning with in- and out-of-school-time initiatives. The initiative also creates access to the National STEM Funders Network.

Our new Community of Practice is named the SA-Bexar STEM/STEAM Ecosystem (SABSSE).

Why should we focus on this effort? One reason is that San Antonio has plenty of the industries that benefit from the talent we create – cybersecurity, information technology, biomedicine, advanced manufacturing, and aerospace, to name a few. Recent studies put the economic impact of these industries at well over $75 billion per year.

Additional reasons were made clear during our participation in the Ron (Nirenberg) for Mayor STEM Task Force. Members of the task force confirmed that K-12 schools increasingly apply STEM/STEAM techniques in their own classrooms. A number of local schools are dedicated STEM academies. Extracurricular programs reach tens of thousands of local students, parents, and educators. Colleges increasingly bring STEM/STEAM techniques into their instruction.

But what about citywide goals, metrics, and strategy? Here our task force learned that we can do much better. While school districts, colleges, and extracurricular programs track their own progress, and STEM/STEAM industries help develop their own workforce, there is no strategy involving all major players.

Therefore, Mayor Ron Nirenberg has used the mayoral platform to highlight the importance of STEM and STEAM to San Antonio, convening stakeholders, setting citizen-driven goals, establishing citywide strategy, and holding us all accountable for results. His plan includes:

  • Convening via SABSSE a city-wide STEM/STEAM team, representative across geography, sectors, and industries, including K-12, colleges, economic development agencies, nonprofits, and industry leadership.
  • Establishing SABSSE metrics around student and parent awareness, student engagement, student completion, adult re-training, STEM/STEAM workforce needs, and entry into the STEM/STEAM workforce.
  • Creating a yearly State of the Ecosystem Report based on these measurable goals and objectives which are required as part of the SABSSE accountability process.
  • Disseminating results in ways accessible and relevant to stakeholders.
  • Strategic direct actions that directly support students and highlight the connection of STEM and STEAM specifically to the city’s strategic goals.

Results on the last item have already been achieved. Last month, Nirenberg launched SA Smart: The Mayor’s K-12 Smart City Challenge. Student teams used STEM and STEAM approaches to address San Antonio’s transportation challenges. SA Smart addressed real-world issues in our city, inspiring students’ education and career choices, all while making a direct contribution to the local STEM/STEAM ecosystem.

In SABSSE, we now have a regional collaboration, including partnership with Judge Nelson Wolff and Bexar County. SABSSE is part of an international initiative that will provide a structured, two-year process and technical assistance to create systemic change.

The SABSSE plan was created by citizens from K-12, higher education, government, nonprofits, libraries and museums, chambers, and especially industry. As a result of the plan, more students, and particularly underserved and underrepresented students, will develop the STEM/STEAM skills needed to learn and prepare for the workforce. Through SABSSE, San Antonio will grow and multiply the impact of its STEM and STEAM efforts.

The City does not have primary responsibility for education – that’s the job of K-12 and colleges. Still, the city we deserve is one that brings the full impact of the STEM/STEAM movement to San Antonio for economic development and quality of life. Every student and parent in San Antonio should know what STEM and STEAM are, why they matter, and how to reap their benefits.

This outcome will happen only when we work across boundaries, measure our progress, and create the STEM/STEAM city we deserve. 

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Raul A. Reyna

Raul A. "Rudy" Reyna is a longtime STEM/STEAM advocate, former executive director of UTSA’s Prefreshman Engineering Program, former chair of the San Antonio STEM Council, and current lead in launching...

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Cliff Zintgraff

Cliff Zintgraff is a longtime San Antonio STEM advocate and current board member at SASTEMIC. He recently led the launch of SA Smart: The Mayor’s K-12 Smart City Challenge.