Project Profile

Developing underserved elementary students’ systems thinking and economic literacy through investigations of local ecological-economic systems


This project will advance efforts to better understand and promote practices that broaden access to and interest in regionally relevant science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) occupations for underrepresented youth in the state of Maine. This project will engage students in investigations of local marine ecosystems through the construction and revision of computational models of those systems. Students will further explore human-nature interactions through participation in simulated gameplay modeling the social and ecological impact of economic decision-making within resource-driven economies. Maine’s aquaculture industry will serve as the context for this work, providing both a setting to study relationships within marine ecosystems through hands-on learning experiences at active farms, but also the context within which relationships between economic and ecological systems are identified, tested, and understood. Key contributions of this project include (1) elucidating a model for local school districts to connect participating youth with a regional workforce through industry and community partnerships, (2) broadening participation in Maine’s growing aquaculture industry, (3) providing Maine elementary students with a foundation of systems thinking and economic reasoning, and (4) supporting a future citizenry who understand how particular decisions based on anticipated futures can achieve or not achieve certain environmental goals. This investigation will prepare 250+ elementary students from rural and immigrant/refugee communities within the state of Maine to participate in Maine’s growing aquaculture industry through the design of an integrated suite of learning experiences that will include hands-on field experiences at active aquaculture farms, mentorship with local farmers, and classroom-based activities which foreground the affordances of scientific modeling as a means to represent, test, and understand relationships within the natural world. The goal is to establish a bridge between the classroom and a regional workforce, and to develop multiple areas of skill and knowledge – including systems thinking and economic reasoning – that can be flexibly deployed across a students’ entire academic career and across evolving future work environments. This project will use a mixed methods approach to explore the impact of the learning innovations on the experiences and understandings of both teachers and students. Instruments used will include teacher and student interviews, surveys measuring learner identity and interest in STEM careers, and classroom observations of the curriculum in practice. The understandings that result from the project’s research will elucidate a model for connecting local youth with regionally relevant careers and contribute to the understanding of how a learning model connecting students with a local workforce can support the development of STEM knowledge and identities, particularly in those from underrepresented backgrounds. This project is funded by the Innovative Technology Experiences for Students and Teachers (ITEST) program, which supports projects that build understandings of practices, program elements, contexts and processes contributing to increasing students' knowledge and interest in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) and information and communication technology (ICT) careers. This award reflects NSF's statutory mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation's intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.



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Principal Investigator(s)


Award Number
Project Duration
2021 - 2022
Developing and Testing Innovations (DTI)
Gulf of Maine Research Institute, Portland, ME
Project Work State
Target Gradespan(s)
Elementary school (K-5)
Project Setting(s)
Formal Education
Geographic Location(s)
Project Status
Environmental sciences
Target Participants
English learners