Skip to content

Power of Change when K-12 and Business Collaborate

By Kelli List Wells, Founder of the STEM Leadership Alliance

I have been reflecting on the changes that have occurred in education over the last decade. In my previous role, as executive director of education and skills within a multinational company, I was in the center of various reforms. I observed there is a disconnect between K-12 and business that is impacting the future of work. Reform in K-12 is a long process, and the business community can be an incredible partner if they are willing to partner for the long run. I am constantly amazed at the demands within a school and a system that come from students, parents, boards, politicians, businesses, etc, it can be overwhelming. What schools and districts need is for corporate partners to support their existing work. One of the most important ways is supporting professional development. This can be difficult for companies to understand, but educators need learning opportunities to manage the constant daily demands they face. This includes deepening their understanding of English Language Arts (ELA) and math standards, and now the new Next Generation Science Standards. Educators need support to incorporate these standards into their curriculum and we cannot forget the need to address the critical or essential skills that are necessary for the workforce of today and tomorrow.

Educators need to focus on the instructional core (curriculum and pedagogy), which involves breaking down the silos in teaching and allowing students to understand how the subjects connect so they become the critical thinkers, problem solvers, and innovators that own their learning. Whether a teacher teaches a particular content area or if they are teaching all subjects, the subjects are being taught in an isolated manner. This is not how the world works. We like to compartmentalize things, not just content areas. We want to work around the core system through after school programs or other opportunities. These programs are essential but until we address the core, we will not make the essential changes that are needed within the K12 system to impact the future workplace. 

It is time for corporations to support K-12 systems that support educators with their practice. Curriculum alone is not the answer. Out of school activities must occur but we need to find connections so ALL students benefit. That is why professional development is essential. I am talking about the kind of professional learning that builds the capacity of the teacher by deepening their conceptual understanding of how to integrate across the content areas. Professional development and curriculum that is prescriptive will not close the gap alone. 

However, professional learning that is authentic, meaningful and purposeful and curriculum that is modified to meet the needs of the learners across all content areas, will indeed close the achievement gap. It is when we realize that each person is unique and therefore, delivery of instruction must fit the individual but also the students the teacher is with. Teachers know their students best and no one from the outside can think they know better. The teacher knows which students did not have breakfast, which students had a rough night; the teacher hears and sees it all. 

And regardless, if we like it or not students are tested on literacy and numeracy. If you cannot read or write, all the Project-Based Learning, maker spaces, essential skills, out of school programs, are not going to help students be successful in life. It is when all of this comes together in an integrated way that the transformation begins, that is why I am passionate about integrated STEM. STEM, however, has been used as an acronym. I have heard everything from a STEM project to a STEM degree. And when you ask parents, students, or people in the community, often they do not know what STEM is, it is equated to robotics or an iPhone. And if they discuss a STEM project, it is just another activity because it is not explained how the science, math, engineering, and technology weave together using literacy as the anchor.  

The amount of money that has been spent on these projects has not shown the results of closing the achievement gap for students. Integrated STEM is not just another buzz word and it is not just about Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math, it is about how to use science as the hook for the students and then to bring in the numeracy and literacy. Science is complex, think of the literacy and numeracy skills that can be developed using science. Then take it to the next level, the history of how the world works, social studies and history must be a part of the conversation, we learn from the past to build the future. Technology is more than a computer or an iPhone. It is closer to literacy skills when you think about coding and understanding the language behind computer skills. And engineering is design thinking, it is a process that allows for design, measuring/testing results, analyzing results, improving and reviewing, this cycle can be seen in everything from cooking to designing the next rocket for space. The crux of integrated STEM is for students to understand the connection among subjects and that they are involved and own their learning because they can understand the relevance of what they are learning in the classroom and applying it to the real world.

The STEM Leadership Alliance was formed to be the connective tissue between the PreK-12 pipeline, both formal and informal education, and industry to promote STEM literacy and careers, and address anticipated skills gaps. The mission of the Alliance is not duplicative of any existing organization. The Alliance is a new, groundbreaking, approach that brings innovation and collaboration to a new level, breaking down walls in districts and schools and bringing organizations – along with businesses that support them – together with shared accountability.

To learn more about the Alliance and how your company can get involved, visit