Science Opinion

Why Schools Build Business and Higher Ed. Partnerships

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — April 20, 2017 6 min read
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One of the facets 21st century schools have in common is partnerships with business and higher education. Many schools and districts already have partnerships that can be maximized with a willingness to recognize that:

  • Students continue to fail to see a connection between what is happening in their classrooms and their future lives.
  • Teachers do not have experience working in the fields of their content area.
  • Targeted professional development that would bridge that gap is often an onsite visit or two or three conference days.

Partnerships have value far beyond a fiscal one. The notion equating a partnership with money donated is becoming archaic. As a matter of fact, some of the most successful partnerships do not include money at all. Both business and higher education partners have contributed to improving the students’ learning experience with support for teacher professional development, co-teaching and internships. Here are three examples of successful partnerships:

VISTA at George Mason University (The Virginia Initiative for Science Teaching and Achievement) offers professional development for teachers of science in the state of Virginia. Their program includes follow-up mentoring and an online community of practice. Their program educates “science teachers, administrators and faculty on proven methods to harness the potential of every student through hands-on, problem-based learning (PBL)”. They reinforce the process of inquiry-based learning and encourage the development of curriculum that requires students to research real problems. Their website reports:

This unique approach to science teaching enables students to act as “real world” scientists, working in collaborative groups to address timely and exciting issues like how to create a more energy independent Virginia, build a rocket, or clean up a local river.

Goochland County Public Schools, Goochland, Virginia

This district was engaged in a STEM shift integrating hands-on, inquiry-focused design and delivery of curriculum. They took advantage of a partnership through George Mason University to send teachers to their VISTA program. Elizabeth Ferguson, a 4th grade teacher at the Randolph Elementary School went through the VISTA program early on, and even in the first year of implementation remarked that what she had learned about the teaching of science and PBL changed the way she was teaching and how students were learning. The dynamic 10 lesson interdisciplinary unit she developed while attending the program and the feedback and support of her instructors during the implementation resulted in a successful step forward.

Hands-on, interdisciplinary inquiry based learning is surely present in some classrooms. In order for the students in Ms. Ferguson’s school to all graduate having had similar experiences, learned similar skills, in similar ways, the integration of the changes in teaching and learning had to be a school-wide effort. They decided to start with the science teachers because science inquiry involves reading, writing, and mathematics. They also had access to the VISTA program as partners. In addition to reading, writing, and mathematics, as a result of the program, students’ learning involved critical thinking, creativity, communication and collaboration, the four cornerstones of PBL.

For students to benefit equitably from this type of learning, more than one classroom or grade or subject must be involved. It requires system-wide agreement on process and planning. So leaders must be prepared to begin where there is readiness and to build program wide capacity. At Randolph Elementary School, the teachers that attended the program in those early years became the leaders and advocates of the change. Momentum grew as student successes continued to be noted.

Stratford STEM Magnet High School, Nashville, Tennessee

Stratford has long had partnerships with business and higher education. At last count there were 36 business partnerships. One of their academies in the high school is the Academy of Science and Engineering where biotechnology, engineering, and interdisciplinary science are taught and research is done. One event they conduct is a robotics competition. Nissan, Universal Robotics, and Wright Industries mentor students in preparation for that competition. Working alongside professionals, Stratford students gain understanding about careers and the people who work in them, and get to see how what they learn in school is applied in the field.

Initially, their partnership with local universities involved students going to the university once a week to work beside scientists. Realizing the impact of having to make up the day’s work once returning to school, in the second year of the program scientists came to the school instead. Scientists worked beside the faculty, planning and teaching. Students experienced the application of what they were learning. Teachers learned new ways to help students make connections between the ‘subjects’ they were taking and the field where they might now want to work in. These partnerships changed the lives of Stratford’s students in many ways. For some the experience of success and confidence grew. For some, it resulted in scholarships to college.

The East Syracuse Minoa School District, in East Syracuse, New York

This district has over 35 partnerships. Seimans began their partnership with the district by joining them in the writing of an energy grant offered by New York State. As a result of receiving the grant, the district was able to buy solar panels and installed monitors in the high school lobby for all to see and learn about the energy use in the district and the source being used. This was part of the science and math curriculum for some, it also built awareness among the students, faculty, and staff about energy sources and use in the district. In addition the grant helped to purchase a traveling monitor that could be taken to other schools in the district for the same purpose.


There is a lot to be done to shift schools toward more successful models that are responsive to what students need and to better prepare them for their lives after they graduate. Partnerships can help bring value to schools and districts and students. The key is building those relationships and together defining what value the partners can bring to the district. Whether it is partnering in writing grants, offering professional development, inviting teachers and students into the work environment, or coming into the school environment to work with teachers and students, there is true value. An unintended consequence is that boundaries get crossed and other professionals learn what happens inside the school walls. As they live closer to our lives, their understanding also grows.These are partnerships where there exists an exchange of effort of authentic learning experiences. Students are engaged in new and dynamic ways and relevance becomes more apparent. If it sounds like everyone benefits, it is true.

Myers, A. and Berkowicz, J. (2015). The STEM Shift: A Guide for School Leaders. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin

Ann Myers and Jill Berkowicz are the authors of The STEM Shift (2015, Corwin) a book about leading the shift into 21st century schools. Connect with Ann and Jill on Twitter or Email.

Illustration part of a presentation by A. Myers & J. Berkowicz

The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.