Innovating STEM Learning Opportunities with Higher Education Institutions

Joanna Chae, Netter Center for Community Partnerships at the University of Pennsylvania
July 24, 2013
This blog is a part of a nine-week series on how community school initiatives are supporting and strengthening innovations in expanded learning opportunities (ELO), curated by the Coalition for Community Schools. Check out the whole series.
Sayre High School, located 20 blocks away from the University of Pennsylvania in West Philadelphia has had four principals in five years, and five principals in seven years. What has survived through the turnover is Sayre’s partnership with the University of Pennsylvania (Penn), which has been sustained and supported by Penn’s Barbara and Edward Netter Center for Community Partnerships.
Sayre High School is one of the Netter Center’s longest standing school partners. The Netter Center has helped to support school day instruction, as well as after school and summer programing, since 1996.  Programming includes: hands-on STEM learning, nutrition education and community health promotion, college access and career readiness, and paid service-learning, as well as workplace-based learning internships for Sayre students.
The work at Sayre is an example of how community partners, particularly university staff, students, and faculty, can support teachers and school leadership by creating more engaging and enriching opportunities to students during and beyond the conventional school day.

History of University-Assisted Community Schools in Philadelphia

Since 1985, a collaboration between the University of Pennsylvania, led by the Netter Center, and West Philadelphia schools and community partners, has helped to transform existing public schools into university-assisted community schools (UACS) throughout local neighborhoods. University-assisted community schools help educate, engage, empower, and serve all members of the community in which the school is located. At the same time, working with community members to create and sustain university-assisted community schools provides a powerful means for universities to advance teaching, research, learning, and service, as well as the civic development of university students.
As part of the UACS model, each school site has at minimum one coordinator from the Netter Center who works closely with the school and community to operate school day and after school activities, as well as manage Penn partners and students who support these activities.

Expanding STEM opportunities and curriculum through Academically Based Community Service (ABCS)

Academically Based Community Service is at the core of the Netter Center’s work. ABCS courses are university courses that engage University faculty and students with the community through hands-on, real-world problem solving, committed to linking theory and practice through activities that make a significant difference in West Philadelphia and Penn communities. ABCS students and faculty work in West Philadelphia public schools, local communities of faith, and community organizations to help solve critical community problems in a variety of areas related to the environment, health, arts, and education.  Many ABCS courses are integrated into both the public schools’ and the university’s curricula, creating opportunities for educators and students at the university and school sites to collaborate. This academic link fosters sustainable partnerships between universities and schools, and helps students of all ages become active producers of knowledge rather than passive recipients of information.  
For example, the Netter Center’s Moelis Access Science (MAS) program uses ABCS courses as one core strategy to strengthen STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) education in University-Assisted Community Schools and at Penn. At Sayre this year, MAS managed several STEM ABCS courses that engaged Penn faculty and students in Sayre’s school day, math and physics classrooms. Under faculty supervision, Penn students developed and implemented hands-on math and physics activities. By teaching lessons to Sayre students, Penn students also gained a deeper understanding of the material.
Penn’s School of Nursing also offers many ABCS courses, including the Nursing of Children Clinical II course developed by Dr. Teri Lipman, through which Penn nurse practitioners collaborated with Sayre students on clinical research projects in pediatrics. Sayre students determined how body measurements, nutrition knowledge, and fitness levels correlate with child diabetes. Penn and Sayre students presented their most recent findings at the 29th Annual Pediatric Nursing Conference in July 2013. This opportunity fostered student ownership and responsibility for their work and teaches them about presenting in public, an important skill for college and career.
Princess Carter, a 2008 graduate from Sayre High School collaborated with Penn nursing students on community health research projects and twice presented at the annual pediatric nursing conferences. She graduated from Xavier University in 2012, with a major in biology and a minor in chemistry. As a result of her experience with Penn nursing students, Carter hopes to pursue a career in medicine.
Carter comments, “There were not a lot of resources and opportunities within Sayre. The Penn-Sayre partnership is an important one that benefits a lot of students. My work with Penn students and Dr. Lipman changed the course of my life.”

Building Stronger Health Careers

Sayre students have additional opportunities to enhance their STEM education by exploring various health professions:
Sayre Health Center - Sayre Health Initiatives, Education, and Leadership Development (SHIELD)
The Dr. Bernett L. Johnson Jr. Sayre Health Center (SHC), that opened in 2007, is a 501(c)3, federally qualified community health center that provides clinical services to Sayre students and the West Philadelphia community, as well as educational opportunities for Sayre, Penn undergraduate, and graduate students. Netter Center worked closely with the School of Medicine, and most notably Dr. Bernett L Johnston, who was a Professor of Dermatology and Pathology at Penn.
One of the programs at SHC that provide educational opportunities for students is Sayre Health Initiatives, Education, and Leadership Development (SHIELD). Through the SHIELD program, Sayre students are enrolled in a medical assistant certification program and learn to perform basic medical services, including blood pressure readings, height and weight measurements, and vision screening with support from Penn students, both undergraduate and graduate students pursuing health professions, nurses, and physicians. The SHC is a national model not only for serving school youth as well as families in the community, but also for linking clinical care with educational opportunities for high school students.
Penn Health Sciences Educational Pipeline program
In addition to the SHIELD program, the Penn Health Sciences Educational Pipeline program also provides additional opportunities for Sayre students. The program was founded by Dr. Karen Hamilton in 1998 as part of Project 3000 by 2000, an ambitious program launched by the Association of American Medical Colleges’ Division of Community and Minority Programs, with the goal of increasing the matriculation of underrepresented minorities in medical school.
While the neurology curriculum has remained a strong and constant focus of the Pipeline, the program has also featured separate curricula for students focusing on other clinical specialties, including cardiology, infectious disease, gastroenterology, and most recently epidemiology.
Last fall, Penn students offered classroom support to 10th grade science classes and taught neurology. In the spring, Sayre students participated in two, 90-minute, weekly sessions at the Penn School of Medicine, learning about neurology on Mondays and gastroenterology on Tuesdays. Small teams of first- and fourth-year medical students led classes for high school students. Penn undergraduates acted as TAs, with each undergraduate TA leading a small group of two to four high school students during class activities. Since 2005, the small groups of high school students have concluded each year’s course by giving oral presentations on topics in clinical medicine. Penn undergraduates assume the primary responsibility of assisting their small groups in reviewing the medical literature, performing internet searches, preparing PowerPoint slides, and practicing public speaking skills. Physicians worked with teams of medical students to create clinical vignettes around which the classes were structured, and give preparatory lectures to medical students and undergraduates in order to enrich their understanding of the subject matter and help them generate ideas for teaching the high school lessons.
From 1998 to 2010, 24 neurology residents, 221 medical students, and 149 Penn undergraduate students served as mentors for the program. From 2003 to 2010, 160 Sayre students participated in the program.


  • Strengthening Sayre’s college-going culture. This year, among Sayre’s 82 seniors, 58 used the Netter Center’s services, 45 applied to college, and 37 were accepted.
  • Strengthening university-community relations. UACS has made a significant impact on Penn’s culture. The Netter Center’s work, particularly Academically Based Community Service, is helping to realize the universities goal to engage locally. President Gutmann notes, “For the past twenty years, the Netter Center has helped make Penn a national model for university-community partnerships. The Center directs the talents and channels the idealism of thousands of Penn students to address issues of education, health care, childhood obesity, environmental hazards, arts and culture, unemployment, and economic decline…Such opportunities cultivate civic skills and promote a spirit of engagement that benefits both individuals and society at large.”


There are several challenges to maintaining strong university-community-school partnerships.
  • Volatility of the School District of Philadelphia. The School District has taken drastic measures to close its $304 million budget gap. In March 2013, the Philadelphia School Reform Commission voted to close 23 public schools, two of which were UACS. Readjustment of partnerships and reallocation of resources has caused undue strain. It is challenging to repeatedly make the case for involvement to new school leaders and teachers. Rebuilding relationships has prevented innovative programs from realizing their potential impact.
  • Standardized testing and ELO. Pressure to perform well on standardized tests prevents university-school collaborations on school day activities, particularly innovative initiatives designed to develop students’ creativity. Rigid school curricula affect the flexibility needed to develop new and expand existing partnership programs.
For tips on how to start partnerships between institutions of higher education and public schools, click here.

This blog was originally published by the Coalition for Community Schools and is reprinted with permission.