opportunities for stem

Susan Assouline, PhD, Director Belin-Blank Center for Gifted Education and Talent Development, The University of Iowa, Iowa City, IA, U.S., details a model for equalising science, technology, engineering and mathematics opportunities and in this vein, that inspires excellence

Nurturing Potential: Inspiring Excellence, our mission-driven tagline, captures the philosophy underlying the extensive student and teacher programming provided through the University of Iowa’s Belin-Blank Center for Gifted Education and Talent Development. Excellence, the last word in the tagline, holds significance for multiple reasons, beginning with the origins of the word.

I thought that I knew the meaning of excellence until I heard it explained by the poet, Jorie Graham. Graham, a multi-honoured (Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, MacArthur Genius Fellowship), University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop graduate and Harvard Professor of Poetry, offers both explanation and motivation.

The root of excellence – from the Greek – is not, properly, to surpass others – or to be greater than they; but, rather, to rise up naturally, to raise – as a crop is raised. The oldest root in that word – from the Greek – is that for hill. Imagine that hill. It was not placed on the landscape to make the prairie feel flat. It was not raised to make the sky tremble. Its job is to be a hill. We do not know why, but we know a hill-less world would be unbearable.

True, too, for science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) programs. A world of STEM programs without excellence would be unbearable.

What does STEM excellence look like?

From our vantage point, it looks a lot like the Belin-Blank Center’s recently-funded National Science Foundation (NSF) program, STEM Excellence and Leadership. Funded in 2017 for four years, through NSF’s Directorate for Education and Human Resources (EHR), specifically from the EHR program for Advancing Informal STEM Learning (AISL), STEM Excellence and Leadership aligns perfectly with several of AISL’s primary aims, including: broadening access to and engagement in STEM learning experiences.

STEM Excellence and Leadership includes five primary components:

  1. Broadening the talent pool of students who come from under-resourced communities;
  2. Drawing from the broadened talent pool to identify rural middle-school students with high STEM aptitude to participate in the STEM Excellence after-school programming;
  3. Providing 96 hours of STEM after-school programming scheduled over 24 weeks, twice a week, for approximately two hours per session;
  4. Offering professional development to the after-school facilitators of the program and;
  5. Conducting research to understand how informal STEM learning shapes the academic and psychosocial outcomes of rural, high-potential students, as well as to identify key characteristics of successful informal STEM learning environments for rural, high-aptitude students and their teachers.

We focused on middle-school students in rural school districts for several reasons. First, Iowa is a rural state situated in the heartland of the U.S. and with an economy grounded in agriculture. Second, fewer students from rural districts, some of which are economically under-resourced, attend four-year colleges or universities compared to their urban and suburban counterparts. Rural schools are also less likely to offer advanced coursework, in part because they must contend with geographic isolation and small school sizes that often preclude the possibility of advanced coursework. Finally, we recognised the importance of working with middle-school students while their aspirations and choice of coursework are still flexible.

What have we learned?

Our method for broadening the talent pool worked. The typical gifted education program in the U.S. serves about 3 to 5% of a school’s population and primarily provides a general enrichment program during the school day. Students are selected for the typical gifted program through grade-level achievement tests and ability tests. We used an alternative identification system, above-level testing, and offered this challenging testing experience to about 20% of the students who were considered high-achieving.

From that broad talent pool, about 15% were invited to participate in the after-school program; far more than the 3 to 5% identified through the typical gifted identification procedures.

We found STEM-talented students with a range of STEM talents, including emergent to exceptional.

What are we still investigating?

We continue to investigate the impact of an informal, after-school program on the overall achievement and aspirations of the students involved in the program. The after-school program takes place throughout 24 weeks of the school year and offers about 96 hours of advanced and enriched programming in STEM. We need to determine the impact of this “dose” of informal learning and whether it impacts the likelihood of taking more advanced courses and aiming high for post-secondary opportunities.

Anecdotally, we have found that participating students have increased their engagement in STEM, which is a critical first step to increasing achievement and aspirations. Teachers also felt empowered by the program and professional development.


Gifted education in the U.S. is undergoing a paradigm shift from in-school enrichment to talent development in domain-specific areas, such as STEM. Talent development as a philosophy aims towards excellence; as a model, it requires engagement in learning.

Our focus on excellence is somewhat unique to the American education system. Many of America’s resources have been devoted to closing the achievement gap and enhancing STEM literacy, through enrichment, which is an important goal for society.

However, excellence and literacy are not mutually exclusive. An either-or approach is not only unnecessary, it is also a distraction from the work needed to develop STEM talent among all individuals including bright students who attend under-resourced schools yet have the potential to demonstrate excellence through all their years of schooling. Finding talent is critical for the individual student as well as for society. This means broadening the talent pool to include high-potential students who might not typically be discovered.

Rurality has many facets, including an agricultural context of raising crops among the rolling hills of the Midwest. Perhaps Graham’s explanation of excellence resonates strongly because of the connection with Iowa’s rural culture. Our STEM Excellence program has examined the impact of after-school, informal programming on bright students (“to raise – as a crop is raised”) who might not be discovered through traditional methods or served through traditional programs. This program inspires excellence.


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