A few years ago, Sto-Rox School District was keen on providing students with engaging science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) learning. Administrators knew jobs in those fields were growing, but their students were graduating ill-equipped to land them.

The Allegheny County district was hardly alone in its inability, despite its eagerness, to keep up with the national movement to strengthen STEM education. According to the National Math and Science Initiative, in 2013 only 35 percent of U.S. eighth grade students tested proficient in math, and only 36 percent of high school students were ready for college-level science.

The Sto-Rox Middle School principal at the time, Melanie Kerber, was among several educators who joined with the Carnegie Science Center to create a free tool that could help districts like Sto-Rox as well as its affluent neighbors bolster STEM learning.

With support from the Heinz Endowments, the science center and its advisers produced the Carnegie STEM Excellence Pathway, an online self-assessment rubric. The tool helps schools and districts examine areas like teacher credentialing and training, as well as student participation. The rubric helps schools identify priorities, establish goals, and create plans for the coming year. It is intended to support both resource-rich and struggling schools, which repeat the self-evaluation annually.

“For the first time, we can benchmark ourselves against what’s considered high quality.”

In some cases, the science center uses the Heinz money to help local under-resourced districts like Sto-Rox carry out their Pathway goals. The center offers workshops at a cost to other schools. Those farther afield can seek virtual advice through webinars.

“What we value about the Pathway is, for the first time, we can benchmark ourselves against what’s considered high quality based on a standardized rubric,” said South Fayette School District Superintendent Bille Rondinelli, who helped create the program.

The emphasis on continuous improvement helps schools find value in the tool, said Kerber, now superintendent of better-resourced Blackhawk School District, which uses the rubric as well.

“The nice thing about it is it’s calibrated so that if you’re showing any level of growth, you can be recognized for that,” she said.

As schools across the region embark on the self-improvement process, they build relationships with one another. When wealthy Upper St. Clair School District received a STEM grant that required partnership with an underserved district, an administrator reached out to Kerber, whom he had met at a Pathway meeting. That summer, Sto-Rox students joined Upper St. Clair students at a STEM camp.

The Pathway program has given rise to an educator community where “we have open and honest discussions where sharing takes place,” said South Fayette Assistant Superintendent Michael Loughead.

The Pathway initiative has brought to light the critical role a science center can play in a STEM ecosystem. Carnegie works directly with kids and educators, but also has connections to community institutions and corporations that employ STEM graduates. Supporting schools through programs like the STEM Excellence Pathway is one of the best ways to bring together disparate but complementary entities, said Carnegie Science Center Director of Strategic Education Initiatives Alana Kulesa, who spearheaded the Pathway program.

A science center can play a critical role in a STEM ecosystem.

The center “is a trusted leader in this field, and they’re neutral,” Loughead said. “It has promoted trust and changed things regionally. The spinoff has been connections we’ve made outside of this experience.” South Fayette is in talks with a local community college about a partnership, he said.

For Kerber, too, the science center has served as a portal to the world beyond school walls. Her relationship with the center opened her eyes to local opportunities in STEM fields she could encourage students to pursue. The health industry in Pittsburgh, for example, creates well-paying jobs for technicians that require less training than doctor and nurse positions.

“It really gets you thinking about how you can get kids excited about this,” Kerber said.

A new Heinz grant will allow Carnegie to train science centers beyond the region to play a role in STEM education.

“We were trying to meet a need in our community in southwestern Pennsylvania,” Kulesa said. “But we’ve provided resources really sorely needed by schools throughout country.”

Today, more than 5,300 schools nationwide are in the program. The science center has conducted trainings and workshops with some 1,000 educators and estimates the program is reaching 2.5 million students.

The data amassed through the program is revealing. Many schools are prioritizing inquiry and project-based learning, Kulesa said. The science center staff has noticed that schools feel comfortable conducting the self-evaluation but seek coaching to put a plan in place.

Hands-on STEM learning is “the most powerful way of approaching education right now,” Loughead said. “For teachers who’ve never done that, it can be overwhelming” to go it alone.